Kore-eda, Japanese master whose films never lack heart

Fiachra GIBBONS
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda poses after he was awarded with the Palme d'Or for the film "Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)"

Hirokazu Kore-eda -- who won the top prize at the Cannes film festival Saturday -- is Japan's answer to Ken Loach, a director whose stories about struggling ordinary people never fail to touch.

His gentle slices of ordinary life have been praised for their humanism, with "Shoplifters", about a group of Tokyo misfits and crooks who form a kind of alternative family, called a "modern day 'Oliver Twist'".

Variety said its "protagonists' rough-and-ready lifestyle demonstrate that people can find comfort even in the worst economic conditions".

Critics said that the film also exposes how the "state fails its neediest individuals".

Kore-eda -- who won the third prize at Cannes in 2013 -- told reporters that the film was perhaps his most socially conscious to date.

But he said he was hopeful that we can make the world a better and kinder place.

"Maybe because of the cinema, the people who usually fight each other, the countries that are fighting each other, may be able to come together," he said.

"Still, the point of entry to the story is the family," he added. "I kind of ask if people who are not related by blood can build a family by spending time together -- can they make ties that are just as strong."

Kore-eda, 55, scored a big international arthouse hit with his baby-swap tale "Like Father, Like Son", which won the jury prize at Cannes five years ago.

It tells the story of a workaholic father called Ryota and his neglected wife who pours her energy into their six-year-old boy Keita.

But one day their lives are turned upside-down by a phone call from the hospital where he was born saying that a nurse had switched him with another infant.

The other couple, a fun-loving shopkeeper and his adoring wife, are pinched financially but raising a happy brood of three kids.

- Cinematic clan -

Lawyers get involved and Ryota insists that he should raise his biological child instead of the sweet-natured but directionless Keita, who only knows him as a father.

Critics praised it as a beautifully worked take on the nature-versus-nurture debate.

Born in Tokyo, Kore-eda set out to be a novelist but then began working in television. His first film "Maborosi" won prizes at both the Venice and Chicago film festivals.

He first made the shortlist for the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2001 with "Distance", his examination of the devastating effect a cult massacre has on the families of its victims.

But it was not until three years later with "Nobody Knows" that Kore-eda really had his breakthrough outside Japan.

Like many of his films, it was inspired by a real-life event -- four young brothers and sisters abandoned in an apartment by their mother.

Most of his movies since have been shown at Cannes.

His sensitive, melancholic style has been compared to that of the legendary Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu, who made the classic "Tokyo Story" in 1953.

Like in his Cannes film "Shoplifters", Kore-eda has constructed his own cinematic family of actors who appear in many of his films, including Hiroshi Abe and Kirin Kiki, who often plays nasty grandmother figures.

"We are all about the same generation, and we have made a film together in our forties and fifties and maybe we will do another in our sixties," he said.