On both an emotional and narrative level, a Hirokazu Kore-eda film pulls you in slowly, almost unexpectedly. The acclaimed Japanese director, whose works include After Life (1998), Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), makes movies about things like loss, abandonment and death, but his distinct touch — the warmth of his characterizations, the patience of his camera — prioritizes the “human” in “human drama.” So these gentle, almost lighthearted stories amble along, even as his characters wrestle with despair, rejection and heartbreak. His latest release, Our Little Sister, based on the manga series Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, follows three grown sisters who were abandoned by their parents years ago as they invite their heretofore unknown half-sister to live with them in the wake of their father’s death.
Kore-eda also just premiered a new film at Cannes, After the Storm — a highlight of this year’s festival — about a deadbeat divorced dad and gambler trying to come to terms with his inadequacy as a parent, husband and son. Sad stuff, perhaps, but in Kore-eda’s hands, the characters and their predicaments become so irresistibly alive. We recently spoke about the director’s approach to character, how he balances light and dark and his fixation on human behavior.
Our Little Sister feels so distinctly yours, but it actually originated as a manga. How did you go about adapting it?
The author of the graphic novel gave me permission to adapt it freely, so there were many scenes that I added; I approached it like an original screenplay. The script is not really complete before I start filming. I would have the cast, and the location, and I’d continue to work on the screenplay as I shoot. I would have the actresses move around in the house, and see what they would give me, which helped me come up with new scenes for them.
Explain what you mean by “having the actresses move around the house.”
If you have a house like that, and you have these four sisters, you can glean what their relationship is like, and their roles within that family — through, for example, the way they might sit in the living room. Whether they might sit folding their two legs under them, which is, of course, a traditional Japanese style. Or if they sit Indian style. Or if they prop one knee up. Or, who would sit most closely to the kitchen? Through these individual behaviors and actions, you can observe the dynamic among the sisters — the hierarchy, if you will. You see the role each sister fills just by the way she moves inside the house. The eldest sister is very close to the grandmother, the second sister is most like the mother, and the third sister is closer to the father.
Most films try to draw their characters in very bold, sharp strokes. Your characters are not like that — it’s very hard to classify them.
That’s true; I don’t define sharply what a character should be. I deliberately do not establish their inner landscape beforehand; I feel like that is something we should seek through their behavior. If you think about it, we all show a different side of ourselves in different relationships. If these women are interacting with their oldest sister, or with their youngest sister, or with their mother, in each of those specific situations, they would be slightly different. Because, as people, we tend to show a different side of us depending on who we’re talking to.
Besides just observing your actresses, what else do you draw from for your characters? Do you have real-life models?
For this film specifically, I actually interviewed four sets of three sisters. Obviously, I had no knowledge or experience of being in a three- or four-sister relationship; I had the source material, but that didn’t give me enough information to fill the screen for the film. For example, what kind of shampoo would there be in the bathroom — would there be a different brand for each sister? Or laundry: After the clothes dry, how would they sort them? How would they fold them? Whether it shows up onscreen or not, I needed to know these details. And I learned other things, too. It was interesting how much the third sister would widely differ from the older two in her taste and fashion and in her music. And she would also often bring home boyfriends, which the oldest or second sister would not understand. I actually try to do this kind of research for every picture.
A lot of your films involve the idea of loss — whether it’s from a death or an abandonment. Your characters are always dealing in the wake of someone else’s departure.
I knew I wanted to direct Our Little Sister when I read the manga. But if you think about it, my earlier film Nobody Knows is the story of four abandoned children as well, and there’s lots of themes involving funerals and memorial services. I think I’m just drawn to these stories. I like to portray characters who have passed or are absent, as if they are there in that space; I find that very intriguing.
If I described the general plot of any of your films to someone, it would probably sound incredibly depressing. And yet, I’m always struck by how lighthearted and gentle these movies are.
In order to convey a deep sense of sorrow, you need levity. I think this is true not just for storytelling but also for performance. For example, Kirin Kiki, who plays the grandmother in After the Storm, she’s an actor who, through her movements, through her behavior, can express these values — when she’s eating, for example, she can mention something very poignant very casually, in passing. She understands that she’s not there to just deliver lines. So I try to find actors who can do that. I don’t make comedies or tragedies, even when there are tragic elements in my films. The human condition takes place within the boundaries of humor and sadness; that’s who we are. We all live in that in-between realm. This is also something I’m very conscious of when I’m writing my screenplays — to not make it too humorous or too sad. If you portray a serious story in a serious manner, nobody’s going to listen to or watch that story.
You also achieve this by underplaying certain dramatic plot points. For example, there are two deaths in Our Little Sister, but you never show anybody saying or discovering that these people are dead. You just show the memorial services or funerals.
It’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to this source material. The author has portrayed this story in this way — as we say, “having cut the top and the bottom.” We don’t see the biggest tragedies that happen to these sisters. For the three older sisters, the tragedy is that their father had an affair and left their mother and remarried. But the story takes place after this has happened. Likewise, for the youngest sister, she’s lost her only family, her father, but the story really begins after that point. So it all unfolds within the resonance of these tragedies. And the story moves towards a future which might not be completely bright — who knows? — but it does show one possible life. So the beginning and the end of the original material were completely in synch with how I see the world.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of your films feature scenes of people eating, and themes around food in general.
That also touches on this idea of not delivering lines for the sake of delivering lines. One of the best ways to have actors perform dialogue and make it feel casual and realistic is if they’re eating. As for food in Our Little Sister, the story takes place in Kamakura. When you compare it to Tokyo, which is almost next door, Kamakura has been able to retain this idea of eating seasonally, partly because they’re located by the sea, and fish is very seasonal. Elements like the dried whitebait or fried horse mackerel were important in the source material. And this food is also related to the memories of those who are absent; for example, the plum wine that they make is connected to the memory of their grandmother. Likewise, for Suzu, the youngest sister, the dried whitebait is something she associates with her father.
It seems that self-acceptance is very important for your characters. So many of your films move toward it.
Exactly. The first word that came to mind after reading the source material for Our Little Sister was that: “acceptance.” This is very different from giving up. It’s more about being able to accept yourself, the people around you, and the situation you’re in. The most beautiful element in the source material was the idea of the eldest sister Sachi being able to accept her father after years of struggling with his failure because of his abandoning them. Through the memory of her father, who has left behind this beautiful young girl Suzu, Sachi can not only accept her father, she can accept herself as well.
Let’s talk about music. Your use of it is usually rather minimal, but there’s quite a bit of it in Our Little Sister.
Music is a tough one. If I’m able to not use it, I would probably not use it. Whenever I work on a film, it usually starts with determining the instrument that best works for the landscape of that film. The way I use music is not over lines, or over dialogue; it’s more between the lines. I want to use music like it’s a gust of wind — it’s blowing, but the viewers aren’t conscious of it. Now, Our Little Sister’s case is a little different, because the music was more central. I wanted to force the girls to find their bond between music to some extent. As I was thinking of the four sisters and the four seasons, I thought of a string quartet. Each instrument of the quartet would correspond to one of the sisters, and would come to the foreground whenever we’re following that girl. Then at the end, when they’re together, you’d hear the full quartet. So the music is a little more melodic for that reason. Of course, it’s not quite a quartet in the finished version, but that was the original idea.