How Palme d’Or Winner ‘Shoplifters’ Made ‘The Invisible People’ Visible

TheWrap foreign magazine: “I think there are many segments of every society that prefer that they remain invisible,” director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells TheWrap

A version of this story about “Shoplifters” first appeared in the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

On his seventh trip to the Cannes Film Festival, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda finally won the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters,” his slow-paced, humanistic drama about a household bound not by blood but by the variety of petty crimes they commit in order to survive.

The film is Japan’s entry in the Oscar foreign-language race this year, and this interview is one in a series of conversations TheWrap had with the directors of the foreign contenders.

What led you to make this film?
HIROKAZU KORE-EDA:
This whole idea started when I finished “Like Father, Like Son” and started exploring the ties of family. I thought that next I wanted to explore a family that has no blood ties. What would that look like? If they’re not tied by blood, what would connect them? What if they were connected through crime of some sort?

Because of the ongoing depression in Japan, and also the economic disparity, many things were in the news. And one of the things that caught my eye was pension fraud, how some children wouldn’t report it after the parents had died and would continue to collect pensions. And the other thing was that some families would shoplift as a family as a whole. These two things gave me the idea of the kind of crimes I wanted to connect the family.

For much of the film, we don’t really know the story of this family — that comes very slowly, over a long period of time.
I had that concept from the beginning, that it would go a long time before you would find out what was happening. The timing is quite important to me. In the beginning, it’s almost like I’m creating that tension within myself. I’m not going to tell the audience, but how much do I reveal? How much can the audience come along with this family until the point where the reality comes out and it starts to fall apart?

Do you find yourself having to adjust the timing in the editing room?
You have this calculation, and you figure out where it’s going. I edit as I go, but I also do a complete edit at the end –and by the time I put it all together, it goes funny. It doesn’t go according to calculation. It’s like a living creature, and you’re not quite sure what to do with it. That’s the tricky part, but it’s the interesting part as well.

When I’m looking at the overall design, one of the key things is how much can I pull the audience along, have them not lose their interest in the family, and simultaneously plant seeds in there. It’s not like a Hollywood movie with lots of things going on, so you really have to be aware of the tension.

What were the biggest challenges in making “Shoplifters?”
For many years, I focused on family drama, on what was happening inside a deeply emotional but narrow scope — looking at the small events that happen inside a family. But with my last film, “The Third Murder,” and this film, I’m opening up my vision and not only looking at the family, but also the family within society, and where those two connect. What kind of tension occurs at that point? And that makes it more difficult — it is easier to do a family drama. But I like the friction at the point where family and society meet.

The film was criticized by some in Japan for showing a side of society that they didn’t feel should be put on screen.
That was from a group of people who are very nationalistic about Japan — they started criticizing it, and it got very big. And when a Japanese person wins the Nobel Prize or wins a world tennis match or something like that, the prime minister of Japan usually calls them to his residence. And when I won the Palme d’Or, he didn’t do that. A French newspaper picked up on that and started saying, “Why is he not inviting Kore-eda?” It kind of got blown up a bit.

And because that didn’t happen, the minister of culture decided to make up for it by inviting me over so that he could congratulate me. And at that point I said, “No, that’s fine, but thank you very much.” And then the nationalists got really excited because I had turned down these congratulations.

So what would you say to the nationalists who think you shouldn’t make films about subject matter like this?
I don’t feel I need to make any kind of serious comment. I think that sector exists in every country. And at the awards in Cannes, [jury president] Cate Blanchett talked about how many of the films in this particular festival were about making the invisible people visible.

I think there are many segments of every society that prefer that they remain invisible. And so I think that making them visible is very meaningful.

To read more of TheWrap’s foreign-language issue, click here.