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Why ‘Shoplifters’ Director Hirokazu Kore-eda Is Feted in Busan, but an Outsider in Japan

Hirokazu Kore-eda received the Asian Film Maker of the Year award at the Busan International Film Festival on Thursday – one of the most prestigious prizes in the region.

But he has previously said that he felt like “something of an outsider” in the Japanese film industry.

Instead of serving an apprenticeship as an AD for established directors – the standard route into the industry for decades – Kore-eda got his start working on TV programs and shooting TV documentaries as a staffer for the TV Man Union production company. His first fiction film as a director was “Maborosi,” which premiered at the 1995 Venice Film Festival.

This quick jump to a major film festival invitation – a holy grail many of his directing contemporaries and seniors seek but never find – made him an immediate stand-out, but did nothing to ease his outside status.

His subsequent successes did that. While becoming a regular at Cannes and winning prizes there, including a Palme d’Or last year for his dark family drama “Shoplifters,” he has also scored impressive numbers at the Japanese box office, beginning with his 2013 babies-switched-at-birth drama “Like Father, Like Son.” Distributed in Japan by Gaga, the film earned $30 million, the seventh highest total for the year among Japanese films.

Kore-eda has pulled off these and other commercial and critical triumphs while writing his own scripts and holding to his own vision, unusual in an industry where the vast majority of commercial scripts are derived from other media and even much-lauded maestros make ends meet by being directors for hire.

Though often compared by foreign critics and journalists to Yasujiro Ozu, that master of the Japanese family drama, Kore-eda is more various in his projects and darker in his view of humanity. The hero of his 2017 drama “The Third Murder” is a twice-convicted killer up on another murder charge who immediately confesses his guilt. Nothing very Ozu-esque about that.

At the same time, Kore-eda is an inheritor to the humanistic tradition of which Ozu was a shining representative. His focus in his best films is essential human questions: What is a family? What does it mean to be a father? Who has the right to decide life and death? His answers, however, are never didactic and often moving, though he refuses to jerk a single tear. Rightly call him a master of cinema; he is also a master entertainer. And still call him an outsider if you will; he is the best Japan has to offer the world.

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