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.

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, loves 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 begin, for all of us, as a 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 normal

All Rights Reserved for Terrence Rafferty

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