With his win of the Palme d’Or at Cannes for the family drama “Shoplifters,” Hirokazu Kore-eda has joined the short list of Japanese directors acknowledged as masters by the outside world. Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa head that list, with Kore-eda’s own favorite, Mikio Naruse, a rank below.
Along with “master” status usually comes influence on younger filmmakers. Kurosawa’s impact has arguably been the greatest, with movies such as “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Yojimbo” (1961) inspiring not only remakes but entire subgenres: the “men (or more rarely, women) on a mission” movie from the former and the “dirty hero” action movie from the latter.
Kore-eda has long been a mentor to younger directors, most prominently Miwa Nishikawa (“The Long Excuse,” 2016) and documentarian Mami Sunada (“The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” 2013).
In the industry as a whole, though, Kore-eda is less a leader than an outlier. After a stint as a documentary maker for the TV Man Union production company, he directed his first fiction feature, “Maborosi,” in 1995. By contrast, most of his seniors and contemporaries spent years as assistant directors or in other learn-on-the-job positions before ascending to the director’s chair.
Kore-eda’s methods consequently often derive more from documentaries than commercial films. Instead of a hit manga or other proven property, he typically works from an original script inspired by real events (“Shoplifters”) or his own life (“After the Storm”).
He’s also known to rewrite the script on set to better suit his actors or his evolving concept of the story. In Japanese commercial films, supervised by “production committees” of media partners, such on-the-fly changes are less welcome.
Finally, while his family drama “Like Father, Like Son” earned a smashing ¥3.2 billion in 2013, Kore-eda is an auteur who rejects box-office formulas, including those of his own making. He has yet to film his “Yojimbo.”
True, DreamWorks Studios acquired remake rights to “Like Father, Like Son” on the recommendation of Steven Spielberg, but his films resist imitation, duplication or even parody. Ambitious (or lazy) producers thinking to use Kore-eda’s work as a template for hits had better think again.
Nonetheless, Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or win will give courage to filmmakers faced with the unpleasant choice of either the indie world’s penury or the commercial world’s plenty, along with loss of creative control. He has shown that a middle way — critical acclaim together with box office success — is still possible in today’s feast-or-famine business. Seven invitations to Cannes have certainly helped his cause, but he also deserves credit for working persistently and brilliantly against the industry grain.
As someone once said to a certain lawyer regarding a certain Samaritan, “Go, and do thou likewise.” And pray to your god(s) for some of Kore-eda’s character and talent.