Hirokazu Kore-eda is a beloved Japanese director who is experiencing a great moment of recognition. He won the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or for his latest film Shoplifters in 2018, and this year he will release his first English language film, The Truth. It’s a measure of his international cachet that The Truth stars such actors as Ethan Hawke, Juliette Binoche, and Catherine Deneuve.
When you look at Kore-eda’s films, two important things become apparent. One is that he has an omnivorous taste in genre. Kore-eda has made everything from children’s films to mysteries, as well as a Pygmalion-esque comedy about a blow-up doll that comes to life (Air Doll). But the other thing that becomes apparent is that everything Kore-eda makes has something to do with his one great theme: the idea of family.
Kore-eda’s views of family have changed over time. Earlier in his career, Kore-eda had seemed to focus on the idea that family is defined primarily by blood. This can be seen in his incredible second narrative film After Life, which is about a way station where people go when they die. The newly deceased pick one memory that the people who work at the way station will then recreate on film, which they will relive for the rest of eternity.
Even though some of the most important scenes in After Life center on romantic relationships or friendships, familial bonds have a special importance. One of the most moving sequences involves a young woman changing her memory from a day at Disneyland to her mother holding her and cleaning her ears when she was a child. In Kore-eda’s early view of family, it is something that provides a greater comfort than anything else. But this comfort is defined not by choice, but by birth.
Despite exploring biological families in other films — Still Walking, After the Storm — Kore-eda began to develop an interest in “whether we can form a family beyond blood relations,” as he once put it. While he first asked this question about a film called Like Father, Like Son, it also seems to have had an influence on his film Our Little Sister.
Our Little Sister is about three young sisters who live together in Kamakura, Japan. After their father dies, they discover that he had a daughter named Suzu with his second wife. Intrigued, the eldest daughter Sachi invites Suzu to live with them.
What’s intriguing about Our Little Sister is that it takes a kind of middle road in Kore-eda’s question about family. All of the girls share the same father, but they have spent their whole lives away from each other. When they meet, they are not automatically a family. Instead, they have to build their bonds through shared activities such as meals and celebrating holidays. This suggests that it is possible to create a family that is not defined primarily by blood, but being physically related to someone does help.
Kore-eda’s films range across genres and, as of this year, countries. But he is at his best when he is funneling topics that interest him — memory, loneliness, friendship — through his great theme of family. It is that focus on theme which serves as a linchpin for one of the most interesting and moving of contemporary filmmaking careers.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest.