The Irresistible Drama of Becoming Who You Want to Be

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, his first set outside of Japan, showcases the great director’s signature theme.

two people on a sidewalk
Manshen Lo

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film, The Truth, ends as many of his films do, with a group of people walking. Some of them are related; some are not. Some know exactly where they’re going and why; others are just tagging along, enjoying the exercise and the company. The person who seems most determined, surest of what she’s doing, is a septuagenarian movie star named Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve), in whose wake the others appear to follow. She’s on her way to a film studio to reshoot an emotional scene that she feels she didn’t get right the day before—though everyone else thought it marvelous—because her real life has intervened. The previous night, at the end of a long, cathartic heart-to-heart with her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), Fabienne suddenly sat up straight and blurted out, “Why didn’t I play it like this? Why didn’t I think of it!” And in that moment, this great French actor expresses the essential subject of this great Japanese director’s art: people wondering how to play their lives, and why they can’t seem to get it right the first time.

Kore-eda has been writing and directing gorgeous, slyly challenging dramatic features in his native Japan since the 1990s, winning awards at festivals all over the world without gaining much of a following among U.S. moviegoers. His profile has risen lately, since his 13th dramatic feature, Shoplifters, won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes festival and was nominated last year for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That wrenching movie, about a makeshift family living on the margins of society, didn’t play in a lot of the big American multiplexes—these days, almost no foreign films do.

But those who managed to see it in a theater or found it on Amazon or Hulu were moved by its vibrant lower-depths realism, its surprising humor, and what might be called its moral grace. Some viewers might have sought out his earlier work and discovered other, equally affecting family dramas such as Maborosi (1995), Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Our Little Sister (2015), and After the Storm (2016). The Truth, though it’s set in France in a culturally rarefied milieu that Kore-eda has never shown the slightest interest in before, is very much of a piece with the movies he’s made in his own land and language. He’s not an artist who loses his identity when he’s away from home.

And that, I think, is because the idea of home and the twisty paradoxes of identity are the subjects he’s been exploring for his entire career. At this strange moment in history, with so many people (voluntarily or not) far from home, and seemingly every nation in the grip of an identity crisis, Kore-eda’s research could be of some use. Near the end of the beautiful After the Storm, a serious boy asks his father, “Are you who you wanted to be?” The dad, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who sees his son only once a month and has never been a paragon of responsibility, ruefully replies, “I’m not who I want to be yet.” (He’s in his late 30s or thereabouts.) Then, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “What matters is to live my life trying to become what I want to be.”

As in all of Kore-eda’s films, the simple statement’s weight comes from the accumulation of ordinary moments that have preceded it. Through that quotidian stuff, the movie shows us exactly why Ryota says what he says to his son: He has a growing sense that he is helplessly turning into his own late and fiercely unreliable father; he’s painfully conscious of his failure to write a second novel after a prizewinning first; and he’s recently been shocked by his ex-wife’s accusation that he only acts like a real father. He does, as it happens, love the boy, and now, approaching middle age, he wants to become the part he’s been playing. And in the world of Kore-eda’s films, a tried-on identity can, over time, turn into the genuine article. Actors know that. So do children when they’re playing—pretending hard, as if they could imagine themselves into what they want to be. Becoming who you’re going to be begins, for all of us, as play but ends as work: doing take after take after take until it feels right, feels like yourself.

Children are often right at the center of Kore-eda’s dramatic films, and usually, like Ryota’s pensive son, they’re trying furiously to figure out the peculiar worlds they live in, and what roles they’ll need to play to survive in them. In I Wish, which is Kore-eda’s funniest movie, a pair of brothers perform some pretty strenuous magical thinking in an attempt to reunite their divorced parents. In Nobody Knows, which is his saddest, four siblings abandoned by their mother do their best to act like a real, intact family, with the eldest—12-year-old Akira—assuming the role of father. They’re even further off the grid than the ragtag aggregation of Shoplifters, yet they make of their grim situation, for a while, a reasonable facsimile of normality.

Kore-eda doesn’t romanticize childhood as Wordsworth did, but he clearly sees it as a crucial time, as a sort of laboratory of identity. He respects children, not out of some reverence for their innocence, or because they are—as speechmakers never tire of reminding us—“our future,” but because they’re interesting. That’s why he’s the best director of kids since François Truffaut; he understands that they’re natural actors, that making believe is what they do and how they grow.

That growth is a slow process, of course. But Kore‑eda is fascinated by process, and he has no problem with slow. The rhythms of his films are more deliberate than many viewers are accustomed to. (He’s the sole credited editor on all his dramatic films save his first, Maborosi.) There’s a lot of walking around in his pictures; a good deal of talking about, preparing, and eating food; and a pervasive low-level sense of expectation—of people waiting for something, keeping alert for it as they go through their daily routines. Kore-eda, who started out making documentaries for Japanese television, watches and waits along with his characters, strolling with them, taking his sweet time.

Then, when time is running out, his people get a little desperate. While the kids play, the grown-ups brood and fret, and those nearing the end of life grow melancholy or bitter. The elderly parents in Still Walking are fearsomely unpleasant: the father grumpy and unyielding, the mother a monster of passive-aggression. Fabienne, in The Truth, is a world-class passive-aggressor too. For all her success, she is a restless, unhappy woman. She can’t help giving everyone around her—her daughter, her son-in-law (Ethan Hawke), her staff, the film crew—the feeling that somehow they’re letting her down. Her tea, whoever serves it, is never the right temperature.

Ryota’s widowed mother, in After the Storm, is kinder, more self-effacing, but prone to attacks of ruefulness. At one point late in the film, as her son, grandson, and former daughter-in-law take shelter in her apartment from a howling typhoon, she muses quietly, “I really just can’t understand why things turned out like this.” You feel, in that heartbreaking moment, her deep sense of too-lateness, her regret that few discoveries about her life or herself are left to be made.

For Kore-eda, the direst affliction a human being can have is the feeling that one’s identity is settled, that the rest of the story is simply unspooling, of its own momentum, toward an inevitable ending. That’s like living in a state of permanent denouement. As a storyteller, Kore-eda doesn’t traffic much in denouements or, for that matter, climaxes. What he cares about is how we move a little farther toward ourselves, take a few more halting steps forward. In the whimsical After Life (1998), he even allows himself to fantasize that the process goes on, at least for a while, after death. In that film, the newly deceased are required, as a condition of admission to heaven, to select a single memory from their earthly lives to hold on to for eternity. Naturally, he’s interested not in heaven per se, but in how the dead might imagine an afterlife of their own choosing, a story of who they were when they were most themselves.

In his 1996 documentary, Without Memory, Kore‑eda tells the story of a man named Hiroshi Sekine who has a neurological condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and is unable to retain the memories of recent experiences. He can remember his life prior to the onset of the disorder, but next to nothing of what he did a day or even an hour before. “If I’m really here, inside this flow of time,” Sekine says, “if I really exist or not, I just don’t know.” Everything is new to him, all the time. His life is a perpetual reinvention. He’s an extreme case, in other words, of the qualities that draw Kore-eda to children and, in his latest film, to actors—to those dedicated to the constant reimagining of experience, to endless revisions of the self. The trick, for his fictional characters, is to do what the real-life subject of Without Memory cannot: to find a sense of continuity in the chaos.

His movies don’t presume to tell us how to do that trick—only that it has to be done, somehow. A lovely moment arrives near the end of The Truth when Fabienne’s little granddaughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier), tells her grandma quite earnestly that she’d like to be an actress too, when she grows up. Fabienne is visibly moved by this demonstration of generational continuity, which apparently skipped her daughter (who was “lousy” in her school play, and became a writer instead). She might be even more pleased to know, as the audience learns soon after, that Charlotte is already an actress: The child was playing a scene scripted for her by her mother, and playing it to perfection.

“True” or not, Charlotte’s declaration seems to do Fabienne a world of good. It puts a spring in her step as she marches with her entourage to reshoot her own scene. This filmmaker constructs his stories so that they arrive not at a clear resolution but at witty, paradoxical moments like this one. He never leaves us unsatisfied, though. For those of us who are trying to understand why things turned out like this—most of the current human residents of Earth, these days—Kore-eda offers, as he always has, sound advice: Keep imagining, keep playing, and, most of all, keep walking.

This article appears in the April 2020 print edition with the headline “The Reigning Master of Family Drama.”