Academic journal article CineAction

The Halfway House of Memory: An Interview with Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Academic journal article CineAction

The Halfway House of Memory: An Interview with Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Article excerpt

Hirokazu Kore-eda's first film, Lessons from a Calf (1991), ends with a resonant shot of empty space. Only a floorboard remains of a cow's stall, from when the fifth graders of Ina Elementary School cared for the animal. The image commemorates a year now without trace, except in the film and in the schoolchildren's minds. The shot typifies the director's perspective in his nine documentaries and three features. His works reveal the dual nature of memory. Memories can fuse individual experiences, and embody the loss of shared time. The characters in Kore-eda's films straddle losses with memories, that both shadow and give impetus to life.

Critics have typed Kore-eda as a director concerned with memory. His internationally known films display memory's importance to individual identities and relationships. The documentary Without Memory (1996) examines how Hiroshi Sekine and his family cope with his inability to recall most events beyond an hour. Kore-eda's three fiction films all deal with memory's compelling and elusive quality. Maborosi (1995) follows one woman's cycle of grief and recuperation following her husband's suicide. In After Life (1998), the recently deceased are required to choose one memory to take with them into eternity. And Distance (2001), Kore-eda's most recent work, shows four people facing remembrances of their spouses and relatives who joined a cult, and committed mass suicide.

The conventional analysis of Kore-eda as a "memory" director, however, ignores two distinctive aspects of his work. First, the director's concern with memory allows him to explore a number of subjects and film styles. Lessons from a Calf portrays a year in the lives of the elementary schoolchildren. Kore-eda's second film is also a documentary, titled But-in the Time of Government Aid Cuts (1991). It examines a different issue and social milieu: the consequences of government welfare policy to an official within the system and to a woman who depended on welfare assistance. Kore-eda's two documentaries on Yutaka Hirata examine Hirata's life as the first man in Japan to state he contacted AIDS through sex. All the documentaries blend memory into portraits of various public institutions and people. The second distinctive aspect of Kore-eda's work applies to his evocation of memory in his fiction films. As the director observes in the interview, he neither instructs his actors how to express emotion, nor does he use conventional flashbacks to appeal to audience sympathies. The director has transposed his background in documentary into innovative fiction films. Kore-eda's original treatment of memory parallels his breadth of subjects and film styles.

We met Kore-eda in the offices of his production company, TV Man Union, in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, in August of last year. The interview took place on Saturday, with the offices deserted. The director himself made tea for us during the four-and-a-half hour talk. The intervals between questions and replies were extended by translations, and by his deep concentration, as he kept his promise "to give a good interview." Born in 1962, Kore-eda, like his character Mochizuki in After Life, has the thoughtfulness of a much older man. His consideration also gave way to moments of playfulness, when he borrowed the interviewer's pencil to draw the flag in After Life, and the positions of the two cameramen in the film.

Hirokazu Kore-eda spoke about his start making TV documentaries, the influence of Hou Hsiao-Hsien on his work, his career bridging documentary and narrative, and the productions of his films, from his first documentary to his latest feature, Distance. The filmography below provides the plots of the movies discussed in the interview.

GP -- What brought you into documentary filmmaking, after graduating from Waseda University in literature?

HK -- In Japanese universities, even though you're a literature major, you may not be following literary studies. …

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