August 22, 2009

Still Talking (to Hirokazu Kore-eda)

by Steven Erickson

Hirokazu Kore-edaHirokazu Kore-eda is the only major Japanese director of his generation who is a direct descendant of his cinematic forefathers' humanism. Many of the best Japanese films of the past 15 years—Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure and Pulse, Takashi Miike's Audition, Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army—are almost defiantly post-humanist. They depict a country rife with violent impulses, gender conflict and distorted sexuality. This isn't just a product of "Asia extreme" branding and pandering; a family film like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is every bit as scathing in its depiction of middle-aged Japanese adults as Audition's torture-fest.

By contrast, Kore-eda's Still Walking (soon to be getting a theatrical release from IFC Films) shows contemporary Japanese family life as imperfect but not outright dysfunctional. It's one of the few recent films in which one can recognize the same society Ozu depicted in Tokyo Story. Kore-eda himself doesn't feel much kinship with his country's directors past or present. While he grants that "there's much for me to learn from classical Japanese cinema,” as he mentioned in our recent conversation, he's influenced more by Ken Loach, Atom Egoyan and Hou Hsiao-hsien, all of whom he praises for their work with non-professional actors and "off-the-set" approach.

Lessons from a Calf Born in 1962, Kore-eda made his debut as a filmmaker with two short documentaries made in 1991. While rather dry, However... shows an ambitious adoption of fictional techniques, turning the investigation of a bureaucrat's suicide into a detective story that probes the ugliness of Japan's welfare program. The more appealing of the two, Lessons From a Calf offers a charming look at an elementary school class raising a calf—and learning about aging and death in the process. Kore-eda was marked in much the same way by his documentary work; he learned "how fascinating it is to find out how personally I am affected and transformed by filming other people." While he always started out making documentaries as a path towards fiction, he says "documentaries turned out to be so interesting that I decided to keep working on them for television." However, it took Kore-eda's first two narrative features—Maborosi and After Life—to make his reputation outside Japan. The former tracks a young widow's grieving process, while the latter offers a spiritual but non-religious vision of an afterlife based around memory and film.

A non-fiction Memento avant la letter, Kore-eda's 1996 Without Memory—which gets its long-overdue New York premiere at BAMcinématek on August 31 (ed: admission is free!)—focuses on Hiroshi, a man whose short-term memory was obliterated due to a vitamin deficiency induced by medical malpractice following surgery. While Hiroshi can remember his first 30 years without difficulty, he wakes up every morning in a state of confusion and takes months to recognize Kore-eda and his crew. The director sticks closely to the facts of the case and Hiroshi's day-to-day existence, documenting fishing trips and visits to the supermarket. He doesn't push the material for either overt metaphorical or political value. Nevertheless, Without Memory contains both. It indicts a medical system that places money over human life and finds a Kafkaesque dilemma in Hiroshi's disorientation. It’s no accident that Kore-eda's subsequent narrative film, After Life, would also center on memory.

Still Walking Still Walking offers a loving but critical portrait of the contemporary Japanese family. It takes place at an annual family reunion, following the Yokoyamas for 24 hours (plus a brief coda). On the surface, it's a placid, nostalgic depiction of a get-together (with enough shots of food preparation to qualify as softcore food-porn), but as it develops, the family shows a startling cruel streak. This is best exemplified by Grandpa's castigation of an overweight neighbor as "a useless piece of trash." The statement doesn't come out of nowhere, as the man has a troubled history with the family, but it still hits hard.

In addition to Ozu, Kore-eda's direction recalls Jean Renoir and recent Arnaud Desplechin. Granted, Still Walking lacks the freewheeling sensibilities of Desplechin's films and the manic edge supplied by Mathieu Amalric. The sound design is its most striking formal element; especially in the first half, offscreen space, filled in with the noise of children playing outside or taking a bath, is a vivid presence. By bringing together three generations, Kore-eda shows how the Japanese family has evolved. In a key line of dialogue, a character points out "These days, we’re not so abnormal."

Still Walking Still Walking feels like one of Kore-eda's most personal films. Asked if it stems from autobiographical roots, he claims "the setting is fictional. I don’t have a father who was a doctor and married someone who already had a child. But the emotions are autobiographical." The film is remarkably evenhanded towards the three generations it depicts. Kore-eda told me that "fundamentally, the film is from the perspective of a son looking at his parents. Then I also created the young boy in order to have a critical view so that it didn’t become too sentimental."

Kore-eda's latest, Air Doll, is sadly missing from the BAM retrospective, undoubtedly because it will receive its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month. Its premise, in which a mannequin comes to life, sounds like one of his strangest films. According to the director, it's his first science-fiction film, inspired by an image in a manga he read nine years ago. While it received a mixed reception at Cannes, one hopes that it will follow Still Walking into the arms of an American distributor.

["The Films of Hirokazu Kore-Eda" is now playing at BAMcinématek through September 1. Still Walking opens theatrically in New York on August 28.]



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Posted by ahillis at August 22, 2009 12:37 PM

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This is one of the few times when I wish I was in Brooklyn in late August.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at August 23, 2009 7:24 AM
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