Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Japan

An interview with Kore-eda Hirokazu

With I Wish in UK cinemas from 8 February, we talk to its acclaimed director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, about getting great performances from young actors and more…

The celebrated director of After Life, Still Walking, Air Doll, Nobody Knows and Hana, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s past work has dealt with both fantasy and family drama with naturalist approach that avoids melodrama. With themes often centred on feelings of loss for those who are left behind, he has built his own style in which tragedy and life in pain are elaborately interwoven.

But despite centring again on family drama, Kore-eda’s latest film I Wish (Kiseki) has a decidedly lighter touch. Two brothers are separated by divorce: stoic, grounded 12-year-old Koichi lives dutifully in coastal Kagoshima with his mother and grandparents, while 10-year-old tearaway Ryu is living it up with his deadbeat musician dad in urban Kyushu. Meanwhile, the Kyushu trainline connecting these two cities is nearing completion and Koichi hears a rumour that when the first two trains pass each other a miracle will occur and wishes will be granted to all those who witness it. With this in mind the brothers set out with a plan to reunite their family.

Rather than dwell on melancholy, the film celebrates the youngster’s ingenuity in planning to see the trains pass with their friends. The script is littered with hilarious dialogue, much of it adlibbed by the children themselves.

What would your wish have been when you were the kids age? And what would it be now?
The wishes when I was a child were: my parents would get along; typhoons would not tear down our house; and I would have my own room. Now I wish that my child will grow up healthy and bright.

I’ve read that I Wish came out of an intention ‘to create a film that would be loved by people for a long time’. Well, you definitely achieved that! But why was that so important to the project? Did you feel that some of your recent films were too cynical?
I tried to create a film that can be felt differently after 10 years later; a film that can grow up with us, the audience. It has never been my intention to make films that are cynical. Basically, I make a film with my belief in mind that the world is prosperous and your life is worth living, so I believe I have not made a film that denies this value in the past. Especially this time, the film turned out to be a positive one because the lead characters were more positive than what I expected.

I believe the story was partly inspired by your own love of railways, which you shared with the producer who wanted to make a film about the Kyushu Shinkansen line. Can you tell me how the story came about with the separated brothers, and how you generally find inspiration for all your films?
Stories spring out of nowhere, so there is no “generally”. With this film, the situation was different because the producer gave me the theme – “train”. Artisans can improve their skills and quality of products over time, but even if a director has a long career, he or she cannot guarantee to make a great film every time because filmmaking always starts from scratch.

The Maeda brothers were a real discovery! Could you tell me how you go about casting your movies with both inexperienced and veteran or well-known actors? Do you think you will work with the Maeda brothers again?
I try to find children who can communicate with me, who I can understand what they mean and who can understand what I mean. It is the same with how to cast adult actors. I choose actors (inexperienced, veteran or well-known) who want to be filmed by me and who I want to film. I would like to cast actors who let me wonder and imagine how I can film them, not the other way around; I don’t cast actors to be moulded to the role. (Of course there are some basic restrictions, such as age and sex for a role.)

If there is any chance, I want to work with Maeda brothers [again].

On some occasions you had to change your original ideas and script with I Wish; such as rewriting the script after casting the Maeda brothers to suit their personalities, and incorporating the difficulties of actually being able to see the trains pass. Do you embrace such difficulties as part of filmmaking, or would you rather everything went as you planned?
I enjoy changing my ideas and scripts, or rather I prefer to change them! I know I always make my crew have hard time, but I think it is important in filmmaking to change the settings and all after meeting actors and location hunts.

Children have a reputation for being difficult to work with, and yet you’ve proved you can get great performances with films like I Wish and Nobody Knows. Just what’s your secret? And what are the actual difficulties with working with children rather than adults?
It takes time. I don’t think it is too difficult if we understand that filming children takes much more time. They can be more flexible than adult actors and stand in front of the camera without the script once they understand how you film them. It might seem you would waste so much film because you’ll need to keep rolling when filming kids, but if you understand that in advance, you’ll enjoy it.

I usually audition about 1,000 kids or so, so I’d say it is the hardest event. But to enjoy it is important. At the audition, I think of how each kid would become when put together. When we auditioned for the roles of friends of the main characters, the Maeda brothers are so full of life, and especially the older brother Koki was too good that a lot of kids could not sparkle in front of him. So I tried to mix and match kids who can vie with them and have the chemistry with them so that they can sparkle themselves.

For example, Rento (who did the role of a friend) did not become nervous with Maeda brothers. Many kids became nervous with Maeda brothers because they were already famous as stand-up comedians at that time, but Rento had some thick nerves, and did not care about the brothers at all. So at the end, he was good for the role of a friend.

Your film features a very benign example of Japan’s geology with the Sakura-jima volcano, but I couldn’t help but think of a more recent example, the devastating Tōhoku earthquake on 11 March 2011. Did you consider revising the film after those events?
I didn’t consider the revision. The Tohoku earthquake occurred after the film was completed.

I’ve read you originally wanted to be a writer, and you write most of your films from your own idea. But Air Doll was a little different, an adaption of Yoshiie Goda’s manga that was much more complete as a story. Did that change the process for you?
I like to make original stories but there was no difference, either original or adaptation, in terms of writing process. I enjoyed it very much for Air Doll.
When we write a script by adaptation, it will be a story that is based on something I cannot write about, so it is enjoyable and I don’t want to reject to do it. For I Wish, the producer gave me the theme of the film “train” so it was exciting. I am more open to adaptation now.

Your former assistant director, Miwa Nishikawa, is really finding her stride with films like Dreams For Sale. You produced her first film, Wild Berries, as well as films by Mami Sunada and Tomoko Kana. How important do you think it is to mentor and support new directors?
I am happy for their success. Because I don’t have many friends (lol), it is good for me to have friend directors around me. I don’t teach them, and they inspire me and I get motivated for my next project. I try to steal the good things of Nishikawa and Sunada that I don’t have.

There’s due to be a big Hollywood version of the story of the 47 Ronin later this year. Could you tell me why you approached the famous legend in an irreverent but wonderfully human way with Hana? (If you hadn’t guessed, it’s a bit of a favourite of mine!)
I wrote the story after the 9/11. I wondered what the feeling of the revenge was. And I wanted to create the film about a man who didn’t revenge. There are many films about revenge but I tried to make the man who didn’t choose to live that way. And in Japan Chusingura is well known for revenge, so I chose the topic.

I Wish is released on UK Blu-Ray and DVD release on Monday 27 May by Arrow Films.

Thanks to Kore-eda Hirokazu for his time, and Caroline and Sophie of Rabbit Publicity for setting up the email interview, and everyone at Arrow Films!

Interview originally published 28 January 2013.

About the author

Andy H
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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9 thoughts on “An interview with Kore-eda Hirokazu

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