Bright Lights Film Journal

Talking to Hirokazu Kore-eda: On Maborosi, Nobody Knows, and Other Pleasures

“I simply want to look at people as they are.”

Visually intense, compassionate, and displaying an unblinking attention to detail — no matter how ordinary — the films of director Hirokazu Kore-eda are more aptly described as cine-poems. “I’m interested in the emotions that arise from the collision between so-called real life and the artifice of film,” Kore-eda once said. To be sure, it is his seamless meshing of the seductive intimacy of the documentary and the formal beauty of fiction film that gives his works their power.

During last year’s 45th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, audiences were treated to a small retrospective of Kore-eda’s four features to date. Screened together, the works reveal a humanism difficult to match in cinema today.

Born in Tokyo in 1962, Kore-eda’s original ambition was to be a novelist. He studied literature at Waseda University, but upon graduation had a change of heart and turned to film. He began his career in the late 1980s working as an assistant director for TV Man Union, an independent Japanese television company. He soon went on to make eight documentary shorts about life on the fringes of Japanese society. In 1995, his feature debut, Maborosi (Maboroshi no hikari), won him the Oselle d’Oro at the Venice Film Festival. (Maborosi was also shown in the New Horizons section of the Thessaloniki festival the same year.) Three films and a decade later, Kore-eda is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation.

Lyrical and astonishingly beautiful, Maborosi follows the odyssey of Yumiko (fashion model Makiko Esumi), a young woman struggling to comprehend the inexplicable suicide of her childhood sweetheart and husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano). Shattered by her loss, Yumiko nevertheless finds the courage to continue with her life and to care for their infant son, Yuichi. Five years pass and Yumiko and her son leave Osaka for the small fishing village of Noto. A matchmaker has found her a husband, Tamio (Takashi Naitoh), a widower with a young daughter, and she is going there to join them. The rugged seaside landscape of her new home, with its spectacular seasonal changes, becomes a metaphor for Yumiko’s tumultuous emotional and spiritual state.

Shot entirely in natural light with virtually no close-ups, the film is filled with images of daily life: a whirring fan on a hot summer day, the family eating watermelon on the porch, children running in a field, a doorway, a bicycle, an empty room. The camera doesn’t so much follow the characters but rather considers them from a distance. At times, the film resembles an exquisite series of still photographs. As described by Kore-eda at a press conference, the “lighting and the composition of the shots were intended … to evoke Yumiko’s interior landscape.”

The film ends with Yumiko following a local funeral procession. Framed in a long shot, her slender lone figure seems the epitome of grief silhouetted against the setting sun and the sea. “I just don’t understand,” she cries out to Tamio. “It just goes around and around in my head.” He offers her an answer that ultimately brings her no closer to a resolution. Maborosi reminds us that sometimes the mysterious patterns and fateful turns life takes are simply unanswerable.

In After Life (Wandafuru raifu, 1998), Kore-eda continues his investigations of the complex relationships between memory, loss, regret, and truth. By turns poignant and humorous, After Life explores what happens to our souls when we die. Set in a drab building resembling a dilapidated social service agency, the newly dead arrive at this heavenly way station and are told that, within three days, they must choose one memory to take with them into the next world. All other memories will be erased. Those who cannot choose will stay behind as caseworkers until they decide. This single memory will be re-enacted on film by the staff, and will be their only connection to the past.

The deliberately mundane, documentary-looking surface of the film — no glossy imagery or wispy music, mostly hand-held camerawork — and the use of both professionals and non-actors, gives After Life a startling immediacy. As the characters try to pick a memory — an old woman fondly recalls cherry blossoms, an aviator happily remembers flying through clouds — we slowly become entwined in a meditation on the value and meaning of life. “Not everything precious about us simply resides in ourselves,” says Kore-eda. “When we see that we are a precious part of someone else’s life, we value our own life differently.”

Shifting perspective in Distance (2001), it is the living who try to sort out their memories and feelings of the dead. The story concerns four individuals who become connected by a common tragedy: they all had relatives who were members of the Ark of Truth, an apocalyptic cult group. Several disgruntled members of the sect, possibly their relatives, dump poison in Tokyo’s water processing plants, killing 128 people. On the third anniversary of the disaster, the four come together to mourn their loved ones at a remote lake where the Ark of Truth was formed. The relatives become stranded at the lake and are forced to spend a night in an isolated cabin, where they reflect on the emotional distance and unfathomable actions of their loved ones in the days leading up to the disaster.

Interspersing recollections and disassociated flashbacks with the present-day memorial at the lake, a pattern of alienation and isolation takes form as the central characters labor to understand, and perhaps reconcile, their family members’ unconscionable acts. Hand-held camerawork, long takes, deep focus, and a cache of striking, unbroken shots capture the murkiness of the characters’ interior feelings and how effortlessly the past invades and confounds the present.

Based on real events that happened in Tokyo in 1988, Kore-eda’s latest feature, Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) is “a summation of the experiences I gained from making my first three films,” the director says. “By blending elements of documentary and fiction styles, I learned how to show a fuller picture of characters’ lives.” Nobody Knows follows the adventures of four siblings who are abandoned by their mother. The children, two boys and two girls ranging in ages from 5 to 12 years old, all have different fathers and have never been to school. Their mother (played to perfection by Japanese pop star Yu) is a flighty but loving woman caught up in her own illusions and desires. When she meets a man and the possibility of marriage arises, she leaves the children to fend for themselves, promising to return home for Christmas.

Shot over a period of one year mainly in a cramped Tokyo apartment, the film tenderly creates the world of childhood with all its wonder, vulnerability, and tensions. Lovely detailed images of the children and their things — a toy piano, a squeaking shoe, a cup of instant noodles, crayons on the floor — highlight their gentleness and utter lack of guile. As time goes on and they become lost in their own private thoughts, the squalor around them increases, and the younger siblings turn to the eldest child, Akira, to fill the role of an adult. When tragedy strikes in the end, you can hear the audience collectively catch its breath.

“I didn’t want the film to become sentimental,” Kore-eda says through a translator. “I didn’t set out to just tell a sad story. It may be sad but, in the end, the children also mature and create a rich universe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t also vulnerable and weak.” The director’s keen sense of observation — honed while making documentaries — and the stoicism displayed by the children prevent Nobody Knows from treading into bathos. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy who played Akira, Yagira Yuya, won the award for best actor in Cannes in 2004.

It is perhaps Kore-eda’s final comment during my interview with him that helps explain the intensity and resonance of his work. “I’m not interested in creating heroes, superheroes, or antiheroes,” he said. “I simply want to look at people as they are.”