Hirokazu Kore-eda | The Big Interview

The Japanese master on making his latest feature, Monster.

Michael Leader

15 Mar 24

One of world cinema's greatest living artists, Hirokazu Kore-eda has been crafting delicate, finely detailed, subtly devastating dramas for close to three decades.

Starting out in the 1990s as a director of documentaries, Kore-eda has applied an incisive, empathetic eye to feature filmmaking – and won great acclaim for features such as After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking and the Palme d'Or-winning ShopliftersAfter a globe-trotting journey in which he made features in France (The Truth) and Korea (Broker), Kore-eda's new film, Monster, heralds his return to Japan for a typically textured, wise, humanist drama.

Now in his sixties, Kore-eda still finds ways to innovate within his signature style, not least with his decision to work with another screenwriter, Yuji Sakamoto, who received the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year. Their close collaboration has yielded a Kore-eda classic that is both reassuringly familiar and refreshingly new. This carefully constructed film reveals its emotional layers slowly and hinges on the tender friendship between two misunderstood school friends caught in the middle of a storm of rumours, lies and prejudice.

The Big Interview

After making Broker and The Truth in Korea and France, in Monster you worked in Japan again. Is there anything you learned on your travels that you wanted to apply to this film?

Having worked overseas, I'm trying to bring the working environment as close as possible to international standards in terms of working hours and holidays. The reforms in France and Korea in that area are much more advanced than Japan and I think I've been able to reflect that since coming back. I'm not 100% there yet, but it's getting better.

For the first time since your first feature film, Maborosi, you haven't written the screenplay for the film yourself. How did your collaboration with writer Yuji Sakamoto come about?

Yuji Sakamoto is the working Japanese screenwriter that I respect the most. In terms of storytelling and dialogue, I feel like I've a lot to learn from him. Also, we have tended to write about the same kinds of subject matter and motifs, things like child neglect, like the families of the perpetrators of crime, like pseudo-families. We both thought that if the opportunity arose, we would really like to work together. And now, we finally have.

How involved were you in the process of writing the script?

I was first given the plot to read in December 2018. The writing process took three years, on either side of Covid, with us talking once a month, or once every couple of months. Both of us had this back and forth during that long period. So when it came to it, I didn't have that distance from the script. It didn't feel like someone else's script. I had a very good understanding of it because we'd been through that intense process. He told me I could change the dialogue on set if I wanted to, but I tried not to do that. I wanted to protect the original lines that he had written.

Since 1998's After Life, you have consistently worked as director, writer and editor on your films. What led you to taking on those responsibilities and was it hard to give up the reins?

I always felt like my scripts weren't finished until we were on set. I would always change lines as I watched the actors and I didn't want to have to check every change with a script writer, which is why I found it easier to write them myself – with the editing as well. I go through this process of filming, then editing and then changing the script for the next day's shoot. So for me, the editing, the directing and the writing were inseparable. But I have been doing that for 30 years and I had started to get a little bit fed up of my own films because my characters, my dialogue and my story structure are limited to what I can write. It started to feel a little bit similar. You could take that as a positive thing if you see it as my signature style, but I was aware of wanting to bring in some fresh blood that would help me move forward.

Were you surprised by the results?

It was really interesting because I couldn't have written that script myself and so there was a lot I could learn from it. I'm grateful for opportunities to learn at my age. It's not as though my previous films didn't have stories or plots but they tend to be an accumulation of everyday detail and usually that detail gives rise to a story. In this case, Sakamoto had a clear structure and a clear progression, with no unnecessary elements, and that's very different to what I usually do.

This film features some of the final pieces of music composed by the great Ryuichi Sakamoto before he died in March 2023. At what point did you first think that Sakamoto's music would be a fit for the film?

 When I was location scouting [in Suwa, Nagano Prefecture], I climbed the hill and I was looking down on the lake at night time. The lake was pitch black and I was taken aback. It looked like a black hole, this big hole surrounded by lights and it looked ominous. I thought, well, this is where the story begins, and I started thinking what music would go with it. I thought piano... and then I just sort of felt instinctively that it should be Ryuichi Sakamoto. When I was reading the script and when I was doing the storyboards and when I was in my hotel room during the filming, I was listening to his music the whole time. Even before I had spoken with him, I had put together a rough cut using existing music of his. It was at the point that if he'd said no, I was ready to make this film without any music because I was convinced that that was the right music for the film. In the end, Sakamoto was only able to contribute two short themes to the soundtrack.

What was your reaction when you received those pieces?

There were just those two original pieces that he wrote. He didn't specify where they should be used when he gave them to me but as soon as I listened to the first one, I knew that it would be the scene where the boys are running through the tunnel and they discover the train carriage. When I played it over that scene, I was so moved – it was perfect. Although there were just those two original pieces that he wrote, he also said that if he wasn't well enough to finish them that I was free to use his latest album, 12, which is what I did in the end. There's a bit where the boys are lying on the ground with their ears to a manhole. There was a piece that I used from 12 which wasn't written for Monster, but it might as well have been. It was just so perfect for the two of them in that scene. I was very impressed.

How often do you make it out to the cinema nowadays?

It's hard to make time! I go as often as I can, but I'm editing at the moment and when I'm filming or when I'm editing, I don't feel that I want to see other people's work. There's also the fact that Japanese films in the cinema tend to finish quite early. There aren't that many late screenings, so that's another reason it's hard to make time to go. Recently, though, I did see Wish.

Do you have a favourite place to sit when you do manage to get out to the cinema?

I tend to sit on the right hand side next to the aisle because I like to lean over on that side, so I like no one sitting next to me.

Is there a contemporary filmmaker that inspires you today?

The American writer and director Kelly Reichardt. I think she's part of the same generation as me. I haven't seen her latest film, but films like Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women, I've learned a lot from.

We're coming up to 30 years since your debut feature film. Do you have a long list of films and different styles you still want to tackle?

There are five or six films that I know I really want to make. Actually, there's more like 10 but I think that would take me to my mid seventies, if I'm still healthy at that point. Then I'll think about what I want to do next. I think the type of films we make naturally changes as we get older and we have more experience. I'm looking forward to seeing how my filmmaking changes.

Interview by Michael Leader.

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Monster is in cinemas from 15 March Book Now!