Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film brims with optimism

Thankful for the support he received when starting out, Kore-eda now wants to help the next generation - although, as he admits, his reasons aren't strictly altruistic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 6:07am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 6:07am

Last year, Hirokazu Kore-eda ended his long spell with production outfit TV Man Union - which he joined as a fresh graduate from Waseda University in 1987 - to strike out on his own. He named his company Bunbuku, which translates as "spreading the blessings" - a self-explanatory handle speaking volumes about what the Japanese filmmaker seeks to achieve.

"I received a lot of support when I made my first film, so I want to return the favour from the other way round - I don't just want to take things from the industry," says the director, who has already produced films by Iseya Yusuke ( Kakuto), Miwa Nishikawa ( Wild Berries) and Mami Sunada (the award-winning documentary Ending Note: Death of a Japanese Salesman) before he founded his own new banner.

"But I'm not just doing this as a charitable gesture," he adds, laughing. "Relating to the younger audience, a more special ability is needed - and I learnt a lot from these younger filmmakers."

And the 53-year-old has certainly absorbed a lot of different energies from his collaborators. While distinct themes have remained very much intact across his oeuvre, changes have also been afoot in Kore-eda's cinematic universe. The melancholy and anguish permeating his early films - such as Maborosi (1995) and Distance (2001) - have largely given way to more sanguine stories in recent years.

And Kore-eda's latest film is brimming with an optimism seldom seen before in his work. Taking off from the abundant human goodness that drives his two previous films, I Wish (2011) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister is fantastically cuddly and conflict-free. Based on Yoshida Akimi's graphic novel Umimachi Diary, it revolves around three young women bringing a step-sibling into their midst.

Having lived by themselves in their late grandmother's house for years, the Koda sisters - the disciplined nurse Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the free-living bank clerk Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and the quirky shop assistant Chika (Kaho) - learn of the death of their father, who walked out on them 15 years ago. While at the funeral, they discover the existence of their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose); learning of the youngster's disagreements with her own stepmother, the Kodas decide to invite the teenager to move in with them.

So far, so predictable. But the contrived confrontations or mawkish melodrama never materialise. The elder sisters welcome her with authentic and undimmed sisterly love, while the teenager adapts herself well at school and finds her calling in football.

Rather than focusing merely on human relationships, Kore-eda placed the existentialist tropes of the narrative to the fore. The characters and their understated personal stories will simply become part of the landscape, like "grains of sand on a beach", he says.

"The original story doesn't have all the high drama which other filmmakers might give to the story," he says. "What's interesting is how despite the four sisters being there, this is more a story about something bigger. The atmosphere of the whole city is very interesting and important in the story. We'd like to show all these characters surrounded by a particular environment."

Kore-eda says he's more concerned about the details in the portrayals of the quotidian - the colours of the city as seasons change, the preparation of traditional food and festivals - than the emoting or line-reading of his actors. "I want to pick up all these details which might tell us what the characters are like - like the way they use chopsticks," he says.

"I never gave them a script. I just told them on set what the situation was, and how to say something. Yes, this time the three sisters are [played by] more established actors … but I don't want to show well-prepared performances. I want vivid ones. I don't give them too much direction. They get on very well with each other, and even if they don't look like real sisters that's fine."

It's an approach that his A-list cast has embraced with fervour - and the stars have come back for more. Nagasawa, for example, is in her second collaboration with Kore-eda, after I Wish; Ayase, meanwhile, has since worked with the director on Ishibumi, a television play broadcast on Hiroshima TV on August 7 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on the city. With Our Little Sister backed by - among others - Toho studios and Fuji Television Network, Kore-eda has certainly come a long way from his modest beginnings as a documentary-maker and then a pigeonholed indie-arthouse auteur.

Kore-eda cut his creative teeth making documentaries, and it's in these films that his engaging, humanist approach first secured critical acclaim: Lessons from a Calf, his 1991 piece about schoolchildren raising the animal of the title (which they named Lola) and then having to decide its fate, remains one of the most moving and effective on-screen treatises about how the value of life is to be transmitted through learning.

After a string of equally well-received documentaries, Kore-eda made his feature-film directorial debut with Maborosi in 1995, followed by After Life (1998) and Distance (2001). The latter would prove to be the first in five films Kore-eda would bring to the Cannes Film Festival, including Nobody Knows (for which the 14-year-old lead actor Yuya Yagira won the Best Actor prize in 2004), Air Doll (2009), and, before this year's Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son (winner of the Jury prize).

The commercial success of Like Father, Like Son - which was also partly financed by Fuji Television - has proved to be some kind of a mixed blessing for Kore-eda.

"The last one was a hit, and they really expect this to be a hit, too," he says, laughing. "This is maybe the pressure I have … But as a filmmaker it's very positive - because if they expect a hit there's a chance to expand the scale of the productions, and I could choose what I want to do and make more films."

Kore-eda says he still likes making documentaries, but maybe it's not the time to return to his roots now.

"I want to do that, too, but I have quite a nice environment to work on fictional films," he says. "Maybe the situation will be more difficult in 10 years, so for the time being I'll stick with what I do now."

Spreading the blessings is one thing, but he seems to know how to count them, too.

Our Little Sister opens on Oct 15