As he sits at a glass-topped wicker table, I’m nervous, because 1. he is, to put it plainly, a very talented man, highly regarded in his native Japan and recipient of 35 awards and 30 nominations worldwide. As Thought Catalog put it in 2010, he’s “one of the best contemporary Asian directors working today.” 2. He’s got 10 minutes to give me, which is rapid-fire in terms of interviews, and 3. we’re speaking through a translator which means a.) my presentation to the lauded Japanese director is about 50 percent in my control b.) my understanding of him is filtered as well and c.) my number of minutes on the clock shrinks to make room.
Owning in part to said conditions, what commenced is open to interpretation. What I can tell you is that Mr. Kore-eda is 1. modest, 2. thoughtful, and 3. acutely attuned to detail.
The latter point is perhaps what’s earned him the accolades that, two decades into his career, he’s still cautious to accept. The key to becoming a good director is 1. “To be very fussy,” 2. “Meticulous,” he expands. “But it’s not only this— 3. “to be obstinate. You have to be obstinate to reach your aims.”
I ask if he can attest to that personally, but he deflects. Or at least, he seems to deflect (similar to comical cinematic dubbing, for each 60 seconds Mr. Kore-eda spends speaking, his translator delivers approximately half a dozen words in English) and instead offers a universal example. “The example would be never forget what you missed in the past and try to overcome that…When there is something which was wrong, you have to do it right. It’s linked also to the memory—to remember all the details of what you’ve done—and what was wrong, and what went good. The memories are also important. I think it’s both—to be obstinate, and [to] keep the memory of what happened to you.”
Are there other directors he admires? Of course, he says; Korean director Chang-dong Lee is among them. “He can paint the very small details of the feelings, very sullen details of the feelings of people. He’s very good at that, of catching [that]. For example, the jealousy, or the regret—he’s very good at painting these kinds of feelings that are not always good. He’s very good at those. He catches very well. Despicable feelings, bad feelings.”
A few nights later, Kore-eda’s own cinematic intrigues will be illumined by his acceptance speech at his tribute. “While [making films] I keep asking myself these questions: What is cinema? and What is the human being?, without finding an answer, nonetheless.”
To hear him say this is to understand 1. why he tends to revisit topics in his films—memory, loss, family—like case studies, and 2. that though some of the subject matter is personal, it is largely his fascination with the human condition that drives his work. Leaning forward, his forearms on the table, he looks down at his thumbs as he thinks. “It’s good to explore feelings. If you want to express your inner self, I think writing a novel is better.” Kore-eda himself started as an aspiring novelist, so it’s an apt example. “So, [cinema] is not to express yourself. It’s to explore feelings that you are interested in. I don’t think film is made to express the dark side of yourself…Film is not for that; film is to explore feelings that you have the curiosity to discover.”
His latest film, Like Father, Like Son, resurfaces several common Kore-eda themes, most prominently the exploration of family.1 The story centers on two families from disparate social classes who learn their six-year-old sons were mistakenly switched at birth. The nature-nurture argument rears its head as the families grapple with the option of swapping back. What unfolds is an emotional entanglement that asks the question: What makes a family?, finessed with grace by Kore-eda’s gentle probing of several possible answers. Kore-eda himself grew up without a father figure; now a father to a five-year-old, the examination of blood connections is close to home.
After winning the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2013,2 Like Father Like Son caught the attention of jury member Steven Spielberg; not long after, DreamWorks Studios acquired rights for a remake in the U.S. With its universal themes, the film is poised to be as beloved in the States as it has been abroad. Still, parts of it ring so peculiar to Japanese culture that critics have speculated it could go the way of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy—a film so quintessentially Korean that it couldn’t weather a transition to Hollywood box offices.
Kore-eda, though, shirks any notions that he’s worried, saying instead he’s “looking forward to it.” This could be because: 1. He is—fittingly for the question—extremely Japanese in his humility and is unwilling to display any semblance of confidence. “It’s a rare and precious happiness to receive such a token of appreciation while I am only an inexperienced filmmaker,” he will later say from the stage at his tribute. 2. He’s afraid to jinx it: “I wonder what’s going to happen. I trust Spielberg; I’m not afraid. I look forward to what he’s going to do. However, I’m afraid it will not become a film,” he says. “My previous film, called After Life was bought by 20th Century Fox and it never happened. So, that is a bit disappointing. For this Spielberg thing, I trust him and I look forward to it, and I wonder what’s going to happen to the film.” 3. He didn’t say that at all, and his translator took some liberties.
The rest, as they say, is lost in translation.
1 In Nobody Knows (2004), Kore-eda tells the story of a mother who abandons her children. I Wish (2011) takes on divorce.
2 Like Father, Like Son has also been featured in the 2013 New York, Toronto, and Chicago Film Festivals and won Audience Awards at both the 2013 San Sebastian and the Vancouver Film Festival.