For the last 15 years, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda has elicited unfeigned portrayals from children and teens using parameters tested over several feature films.

“This methodology started when I was doing Nobody Knows, and I had auditioned and chosen many children who had no acting experience,” the director—whose most recent masterwork of empathy, Shoplifters, won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—told MovieMaker during a visit to Los Angeles last month. 

While shaping the young talent for his 2004 feature Nobody Knows, a moving drama concerning four siblings braving abandonment, Kore-eda discovered his efforts were more effective if he didn’t share any text or details about the production with the children. “Before that, I had tried teaching them the script and found that it ended up like a school play, and that wasn’t what I wanted,” he explained. He then took a stab at implementing improvisational techniques, but that also proved unfruitful. 

Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) are a formidable petty crime duo in Shoplifters. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Finally, the director felt that guiding his most inexperienced cast members closely could do the trick. Kore-eda would tell them, “He is going to tell you this, so this is what you want to say back to him.” This way he would get the result he sought but filtered through the children’s own personalities. “It was through trial and error that I arrived at this methodology, and it just works really well.” 

Ever since that epiphany, Kore-eda’s utterly compassionate movies have featured nuanced turns from child performers: from Still Walking, to I Wish, to Like Father Like Son, to After the Storm, and, of course, his latest Shoplifters.

From the moment he meets them in the audition, he communicates directly what he wants as opposed to requiring memorization. “One thing I do is whisper in their ear and tell them their lines verbally, and I see how they respond to that, and they need to respond well to that in order to be chosen,” he asserted.

Throughout the film production Kore-eda only provides them with the lines necessary for the scene they are about to shoot. “I do not give the children anything in advance, so they literally experience the story as it unfolds.” By limiting the amount of information they have previous access to, he ensures reactions are genuine throughout. For example, in Shoplifters, child actors Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki, who play siblings in a makeshift family, were not aware they were involved in a heart-rending film until one of the characters dies.

Nobuyo (Ando Sakura) and Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) adopt little Yuri into their makeshift family.

Conversely, adult cast members got more details and direction prior to filming. Kore-eda brought them in for a table read where they discussed each of their roles within the family unit and how the characters create a nest for themselves as part of the unorthodox setup. Although they know the overall story and some specifics on the situations they will encounter, there are no rehearsals, so whatever they are bringing to their roles occur in the moment and are undoubtedly impacted by their youngest counterparts. 

Characterized by their sheer sincerity, Kore-eda’s deeply humanist movies almost always examine family entanglements. No one is ever presented as an irremediable antagonist, but their flaws are still observed. In Shoplifters, the clan in focus is inherently more morally questionable as it’s composed of a group of deviants sporting varying degrees of indecorous behavior: a few charming pariahs, an elderly woman getting by on government benefits, a prepubescent boy, and a girl they rescued from her abusive home.  

“I was thinking, ‘If I have a family in which the members are not connected by any sort of blood ties, what would I do?’ They’re not connected through kindness, a sense of goodness, or a sense of what is right or wrong; none of that connects them. What would connect them?” Kore-eda explains about his endearing band of thieves.

Kore-eda then introduced money as a link between them born out of self-preservation. “Everybody comes to that house and relies on the grandmother’s money.” The filmmaker pointed out that they are also bonded through their shared instruction in teaching the children to carry out petty crimes. As twisted as it may sound, that shared responsibility is part of the glue that binds them together. 

Consistent with his prior filmography, a father-son relationship sits at the core of Shoplifters. Osamu (Lily Franky) has raised Shota (Kairi Jō) to the best of his ability, but his selfish nature leads him to manipulate his adoptive son for personal gain. Still, this often unscrupulous man has functioned as the boy’s only male role model. 

Osamu and Shota scout a local supermarket before stealing groceries.

According to Kore-eda, the way he writes father figures in his films is influenced by his own recollections from being a son and a father—even if the parallels are not literal. “There may be times when my father would be reflected onto the father figure, and sometimes myself is reflected onto the father figure,” he said. 

“In this movie, for example, the young boy realizes that the father is teaching him to shoplift, and gradually he develops a sense of conscience around it and is not happy with that,” said Kore-eda. As this awareness grows, Shota starts seeing the ways in which the surrogate father is not all that he thought he was. He unveils his weaknesses and is distraught by that, which in turn, as the director explained, triggers the family’s final collapse. “I felt that feeling with my own father, at some point, like any person growing up, I saw my father for who he was, rather than who I thought he was.” 

On the subject of stories about parents and children, Kore-eda spoke about fellow Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda, who’s behind superb anime gems like The Boy and the Beast, Wolf Children, and this year’s Mirai. Geniuses in their respective mediums, both address similar human conflicts. 

“There is a simpatico friendship between the two of us,” said Kore-eda. “I have no ghosts or half-wolf children, but I think his work is very similar in the kind of questions around parenting to what I work with: How does someone become a mother? Or, what can go wrong with the father?” Ultimately, Kore-eda is not actively pursuing work in the animation world, but he is glad kindred spirit Hosoda is creating spiritually kindred fables in that realm. MM

Shoplifters is Japan’s Oscar Entry for Best Foreign Language Film, courtesy Magnolia Pictures. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.