Hirokazu Koreeda on his new drama about women with ‘shadows’

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

When Hirokazu Koreeda’s gently offbeat family drama “Umimachi Diary” (“Our Little Sister”) was screened in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, both audiences and the media were enthusiastic — a story for the Reuters news agency described it as “Palme d’Or material.” But instead of being awarded the festival’s top prize, the film walked away with nothing.

In Japan, however, “Our Little Sister” is getting a wide release, with distributors Toho and Gaga hoping to replicate the success of “Soshite Chichi ni Naru” (“Like Father, Like Son”), Koreeda’s 2013 film about two boys who switched families at birth, which earned ¥3.2 billion at the local box office and won Koreeda a jury prize at Cannes.

His new film is based on Akimi Yoshida’s long-running manga of the same name about teenage Suzu (played by Suzu Hirose), who comes to live with her three adult half-sisters in their big, rambling house in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. While the film borrows liberally from the manga, beginning with the funeral of the four sisters’ philandering father, Koreeda also departed significantly from it, with Yoshida’s blessing. As a fan of the comic, Koreeda first tried writing a script that was little more than a digest of the manga’s episodic plot, but then decided that “it didn’t make a film,” he says.

While rewriting the script, he narrowed the focus to the four sisters, especially Suzu and her oldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), the only one of the three siblings to clearly remember their father (never seen in the film), and the only one who shares Suzu’s complex feelings toward a man who was caring but irresponsible.

“We decided on the casting from the second draft of the script,” Koreeda tells The Japan Times. “I imagined how these women would move around inside the house and started to think about scenes that weren’t in the original (manga) and how to change the dialogue, until I finally had a two-hour movie.”

Newcomer Hirose gives the film’s strongest performance as the spirited but conflicted Suzu, who negotiates the difficult transition from being the unwanted daughter of her weak-willed stepmother to the sister of friendly strangers who were abandoned as children by the father she loved.

Since Hirose was only 15 when shooting started, Koreeda directed her with methods he had used with child actors in the past, such as giving Hirose her lines for each scene instead of handing her the entire script.

“Her eyes are extremely powerful,” Koreeda says. “She has grown up always keeping her eyes fixed on adults. So I wanted to use that power in her eyes.”

He also comments on the “shadow” or loneliness he saw inside her.

“The moment I first met her I felt that, though she was a child, she was someone who stood alone, who didn’t live leaning on adults,” he says.

This strength, however, emerges in subtle ways throughout the film, such as in Suzu’s intimate conversations with her new siblings, including the free-spirited Chika (Kaho) and the unlucky-in-love Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa). The conventional shouting-matches and slammed-doors of local melodramas are nowhere to be found.

“(The sisters) don’t have big conflicts with each other on the surface,” Koreeda says. “Sachi and Yoshino have little arguments, but in the story you don’t see Suzu getting into a big fight and storming out of the house — I didn’t want to make that sort of story, and it’s not in the manga either.”

Also outstanding, but for quite different reasons, is Ayase as Sachi, a cancer-ward nurse who is strong and sensitive in ways that echo Suzu’s own character, but with a similar shadow in her soul. Given all the goofy comedies and TV dramas on Ayase’s resume, this performance is a revelation, but Koreeda cast her less for her previous work than for the impression she made when he met her.

“She’s a serious person and the way she stands and holds herself is beautiful. When she sits, her posture has a feeling of earnestness that young people today have lost,” he explains. “Her character was disciplined by a strict grandmother, so I thought it would be good to have (Ayase’s) sort of old-fashioned appeal. ”

For those worried that Koreeda has fallen into a rut — he has made three straight films, including “Kiseki” (“I Wish”), about children separated from their parents — he says he is eager to take a break from the family drama genre and make what he calls a “social-problem film.”

“There are a lot of themes I want to film related to discarded people, such as the story of Japanese who emigrated to Brazil after World War II or the story of the Japanese film studio in Manchuria (in the colonial period),” he says. “I want to tackle something that is a bit of an epic poem, about things that were forgotten or put aside when Japan was undergoing development after the war. I’ve been meaning to do this kind of thing for 10 years now, but the stars have never aligned — I want to do it soon.”