Family Guy: Hirokazu Kore-eda Is the Master of the Domestic Drama

The acclaimed Japanese filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated ‘Shoplifters’ is back with ‘The Truth,’ another superb study of parents and children. Here, he talks about his own family, losing those close to him, and why he likes melancholy endings.

Strictly speaking, Hirokazu Kore-eda hasn’t only made family dramas. The Japanese writer-director’s impressive oeuvre also contains the meditative courtroom thriller The Third Murder and the offbeat sci-fi fairytale Air Doll, about a sex doll that gains consciousness. But in recent years, starting with 2008’s sublime Still Walking, which chronicles the reunion of siblings to commemorate the death of their brother, Kore-eda has focused on the bittersweet rituals undertaken by families as they grapple with loss or generational conflict. 

In movies like Like Father, Like Son (in which a businessman learns that his birth son was switched in the hospital with the boy he’s been raising for years) and After the Storm (about a deadbeat dad trying to turn his life around after his own dad’s death), the 58-year-old filmmaker has told deceptively small stories with large emotional impacts, exploring how those bonds of blood are very hard to break — no matter how hard we try.

In 2018, Kore-eda’s career of consistently moving, understated character portraits reached its apex with Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and then was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. The honors felt like a coronation for one of the world’s premier filmmakers, raising expectations for his latest offering, which in some ways is a departure. 

The Truth is Kore-eda’s first film made outside Japan — the story takes place in Paris — and his first not in Japanese. It stars Juliette Binoche as a writer who travels from New York with her husband (Ethan Hawke) and daughter to confront her mother (Catherine Deneuve), a revered but ornery French actress who has just published a scathing memoir. Mother and daughter have rarely seen eye to eye, but the autobiography threatens to drive an even deeper wedge between them. (Spoiler Alert: The two women don’t view their shared life in remotely similar ways.)

Initially, it can be jarring to watch Kore-eda working in a different land and a different language with bigger international stars than he normally casts, but The Truth is to its bones a Hirokazu Kore-eda film, studying how feuding generations try to make peace and exploring why marriages are often ongoing negotiations. At the same time, this is often a very funny movie as the three leads trade wry barbs with one another. There’s plenty of pent-up resentment to go around, and the audience reaps the rewards of the characters’ prickly back-and-forth.

I talked to Kore-eda back in March, just as COVID-19 put the world in lockdown. We were supposed to meet in L.A., but the pandemic made it impossible for him to fly from Japan, and so, we spoke by phone through an interpreter instead. I was curious to hear about his own relationship with family, and what prompted this shift in the types of movies that he makes. Along the way, we also discussed evoking your deceased parents in the characters you write, why it’s not so bad that our memories are unreliable and whether he’s as melancholy as his films’ endings.

In The Truth, much of the conflict comes from the fact that this mother and daughter remember their lives together very differently. They talk about the fact that our memories can’t be trusted. It’s a dispiriting thought that we can’t rely on what we think we remember.
I don’t necessarily think of that as a negative aspect of memory. I was trying to portray memory as not completely fossilized in the past. By the process of remembering — and depending on when and how you remember — it’s possible for the shape of those memories to change. And we can change them by interacting with the people around us. I was trying to portray the way that, through the mother and daughter’s interactions, they were actually changing the shape of the conflict that lay dormant between them.

How has your own memory played tricks on you?
I became a father after my father passed away. And once I became a father, I was able to [understand] my father. When he was alive, I didn’t have that many great memories of him. But I think becoming a father myself — and being willing to reconsider him as a person in a different light — has been helpful to me.

So many of your recent films have been about families. When did you realize that would be your central theme as a storyteller?
I think what got me started was when I made Still Walking soon after my own mother had passed away. I think that got me started on the family theme. For my next film, which I’m currently just developing, I don’t really have a clear family theme in it. But as I get older and my own role in my family shifts, I may find something new about that to explore in the film.

How is your role shifting in your family?
Basically, I’m growing older. Still Walking, I made from the point of view of the son. Like Father, Like Son, I made from the point of view of a new father. Perhaps if I become a grandfather, my perspective will change again.

The Truth is about a family led by two very strong generations of women. I was curious about your family growing up.
My own family was very much [led by] powerful women. The men in the family weren’t quite mature. It’s certainly not like this film is autobiographical, but it does reflect the family that I grew up in.

What did you learn growing up in a family like that?
I think that your childhood family dynamics have a really strong influence on anyone as a writer or a director. I can write a relationship between a younger brother and an older sister, but it’s not easy for me to write, say, an older brother and a younger sister because that’s not what I grew up with.

Catherine Deneuve’s character mentions that she would rather be a great actress than a great mother. How do you feel about that artist/parent question?
It’s not that easy to maintain a balance. Sometimes, I take an old-fashioned stance and say that it’s important for my child to watch me working hard to support the family.

You said that the death of your parents influenced the movies that you’ve made. Have you written characters who specifically recalled your mom and dad? Maybe, in a sense, as a way to bring their voices back?
There’s an actress that I worked with on several films before she recently passed away. Her name is Kirin Kiki, and she was the mother in both Still Walking and After the Storm. I deliberately evoked my mother in those characterizations. In Still Walking, evoking her was definitely part of my grieving process.

The Truth is the first time you’ve set a film outside of Japan — and your first in French. Was there fear attached to that? Or excitement?
It was definitely the latter. It was about the allure and wanting to be stimulated by working outside my comfort zone — in a sense, even more so than working in France and in French. Working with Catherine Deneuve was most stimulating.

You’re an acclaimed international filmmaker, but do you still get nervous working with a legend like her on the first day?
Not so much the first day of filming, but the first time that we met. It was to discuss the plot outline, but when she arrived, she hadn’t read it.

So how’d you handle that?
Basically, she spent the time that we were supposed to be discussing the plot that she hadn’t read playing with her dog, telling me which restaurants to go to and complaining about movies that she’d seen that she didn’t like. But at the end of the meeting, she looked at me and said, “I think I can work with you,” so apparently it was successful. I thought, Well, I think I can make this work.

Do you find yourself studying other people’s families? Figuring out how they work?
I do — yes, of course, I do find myself observing them. It’s a professional preoccupation.

Do the people in your life know you’re secretly studying them?
I think they know that I’m watching.

What about working with Ethan Hawke? You have this American actor alongside several French co-stars.
Before he had officially accepted, I flew from the Cannes Film Festival to New York to negotiate with him directly, and he talked about how on [Richard] Linklater’s set, Linklater develops and revises the script as he’s shooting. This is what I do as well, so I really felt that we could work together well.

Ethan said what matters about making a film isn’t that you have a common language, but that you have a common vision. He felt comfortable about that shared vision, so I’m really grateful and so delighted to work with him.

I’m always interested in how artists respond to success. You received the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Shoplifters and then got an Oscar nomination. Did you feel pressure for the next film?
Well, fortunately, The Truth was already underway when Shoplifters received such wide acclaim, so I actually didn’t have to deal with that kind of direct pressure from the success of Shoplifters. But I would say now, these days, I’m getting more offers to direct films abroad, which I’m grateful for. But I really have to address that reality and those offers — I’m struggling with those decisions.

Calling this film The Truth — was there any particular reason?
The truth is what everybody seems to want, but it’s, in fact, very difficult to attain. I’d also say that the way that that mother and daughter are able to enrich their relationship is through performing for each other in a fictional manner — it’s the opposite of the truth, actually, that leads them to some kind of a possible path toward resolution.

In many of your films, a family has problems, but they tend to be worked out by the end. It’s an optimistic view. Is that your own view of family?
For this film, I think that’s certainly true that I have a kind of optimism about the fact that the mother and daughter can reinvent their relationship and rewrite the past. That’s something that I wanted. I think it’s probably a little bit more optimistic than my other films. Also, Kirin Kiki, who had evoked my mother in two other films, passed away while I was making The Truth. That definitely pushed me in a more positive direction and to land in a more positive place, because I’d lost her.

So many of your movies end on a wistful, melancholy note. Is that just your temperament in general?
I certainly am always aware of staying away from either a happy ending or a bad ending. I prefer the kind of wistful, melancholic ending because it’s closest to life. I mean, ultimately, we die, but it’s not about an ending, per se. Life goes on.