After Life (Wandafuru Raifu, 2002)

By Claudia Siefen

Born in 1962 the japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu started his career as a producer and director for TV productions, focusing mostly on documentaries, but still using his clear narrative structures developed from that period in his feature films. When he finished his studies in literature at the Waseda University in Tokyo, the fact of using the language of cinema in order to tell his stories was an obvious consequence. His thematic leitmotifs through the years were simply remembrance, death and the fear of loss – and of course the variety of ways the human being deals with this issues. In Nobody Knows (Dare mo shirnai, 2004) Kore-eda describes how fear can turn into a personal prison for some people: A house-hunting young mother of four, deals with society’s moral condemnation because every one of her children has a different biologic father. Moving into a flat, it is only through her eldest son she introduces herself to the landlord, while her other three children are smuggled in, hidden in big suitcases and encouraged to keep quiet. The four kids never attended school, they don’t even own shoes for that matter. One day, the mother leaves a note and little money, saying she is certain to come back again one day. But until that day the kids will have to take care for themselves. With the rotation of  seasons, the once perceived as a shelter from the outside world utterly collapses. Afterwards, curiosity and the desire for freedom carve their way in the children, since the four walls of their home are not a protection anymore. Notably, indoor shots here attests Kore-eda’s documentary style, a filmmaker that without rushing, leaves every single frame a to last a little longer than usual on the big screen. To follow the story of the kids in the film, their clumsy movements and jumpy dialogues, makes us forget somehow that this all started with a strict screenplay and that the kids have only followed every single instruction commanded by the director.

This documentary style, where everyday life incidents are shown in long expectant shots, is firmly based on the filmmaker previous experience as a director of documentaries for Japanese television. From his early works, Kore-eda adopted the aesthetics of the unseen, the genuine. In these actions that appeared to be natural, the filmmaker brings his observations to the boiler, every movement and every word, sharpening the vision of the eye for the film settings at the same time. But he also is constantly making questions about everything we are shown on the big screen, because everything that we see is only “everything“ that the director allows us to see. There is a blankspace between everything that is shown and the observation itself.

This special quality already appeared in Distance (2001), when observing the surviving memories of a collective suicide, strained in an apocalyptic religious sect called “Ark of Truth”. Forced against their will, four family members and one survivor get together in one night. Within long tracking shots and soft colored cinematography, Kore-eda collects the survivors unanswered questions. Once again those involved are looking for shelter between their own four walls. But Kore-eda pulls down the self-chosen barricades where the wind blowing “outside“ does not only makes you breathe deeply but also freeze heavily.

After Life (Wandâfuru raifu, 2002) brings different stories together, whose documentary style lends credibility to their authenticity. In a world where familiars of recently deceased persons are given the opportunity to produce a low-budget short film based on their most beloved memoirs. They will have to choose wisely because that short film will be the one and only material memory they can take with them on their journey into the afterlife. And it won’t be long before everyone involved feels scared by such an option. What is there to be honestly called the most beautiful moment and memory in your life? Is it something big, something extravagant? Or is it something small, microscopic: just like smells or dancing steps? The agony of choice originates not only from breaking away of the expectations of the people around. Again, the documentary style prevails, also within the acting. The actors appear very reliable within their small gestures and few words: every single “oh” makes you feel more than any wild rapture of feeling. And a harsh nod involves all that disappointment that  living a supposedly good life brings along. The echo of steps seem like the last confirmation of existence: which person’s step you hear is on the spot? A person’s step says it all, there is even no need anymore for more words or a conversation. But the idea of holding a tape in your hands is still frightening. In the end there will be a tape that shows everything? Everything. That idea reveals also Kore-eda’s very personal search in his work to get to the exact point.

Maboroshi no hikari, 1995)
Maboroshi no hikari, 1995)

In this case, the issue of death in Maboroshi (Maboroshi no hikari, 1995) is significantly more concrete and realistic. Indeed he “thematised” the fear of loss and expressed the astonishment about the pointless meaning of death. After the loss of a beloved person is there a new beginning possible? Concerning his documentaries, a question like that seems less unsettling because of the personal distance the filmmaker takes with the story. But then distance is also marginal, like in his documentary However (1990) where he introduces us to the story of Yoyomori Yamanouchi. As the head of the National Social Welfare Bureau in Japan, Yoyomori was responsible for compensating victims of Minamata Disease, a neurological disorder caused by methyl mercury poisoning. He felt too much pressure in doing his job properly and eventually committed suicide. In this documentary, the minutes of silence are not uncommon, we see interview partners just simply starring out of the window or scratching the back of their hands. For minutes. In conversation with the widow this silence almost feels bashful, while the widow apologizes for her feelings and her selfishness to wish her husband back. The camera locates her with generous detail, expectant, and then unexpected movements arise as a result: a weak fingernail scraping, smoothing down the hem of her skirt. On the other hand the interviews with the colleagues appear almost belligerent, but that certain non-excitement of the director’s cinematography and editing, leaves some space to the story, not imposing the heat of the interviews. In However Kore-eda is speaking up for a bigger solidarity in the family and, if needed, for a bigger willingness to cut down one’s own needs.

The wish for an intact social-life design is represented also in Lessons from a Calf (Mou hitotsu no kyouiku – Ina shogakkou haru gumi no kiroku, 1991): over the years Kore-eda observed a primary school located in Nagano. For a Japanese school its curriculum is seems atypical – because it simply does not exist. Attended by their parents the students demonstrate once in a week the learned subject matter, getting judged on one’s own merits afterwards. Kore-eda questions here the emotional draining of the pupils, the reactions of the individual members, how each and every one takes and handles the same experience in a different and personal way. A calf is cared by the pupils. They paint drawings, write on a journal their daily experiences with the little creature and write poems about it. They even compose a song and get face to face with death. In the children’s openness, the contrast to their parents’ emotional world is obviously shown: from time to time the parents feel overwhelmed. Fitting the documented education model Kore-eda retreats, no voice over is used in this film, the elected scenes are enough for interpretation.

Kore-eda proceeds in a completely different way in August without him (Kare no inai hachigatsu ga, 1994). He keeps talking a lot, making sure of his own superiority not only over the situations he chooses to show but also with the words, spoken by himself. For two years Kore-eda accompanied Hikata Yurata, a man infected with AIDS, the first formal documented case in Japan. The young man has long since lost contact with his family, and quite often the film crew becomes a surrogate family. We even see the director on the screen, discussing porn films and favorite dishes with the young man. A range of inserts explain the progress of the disease in a clinical way, and at times the young man even takes the camera from Kore-eda’s hand. Slowly his fear grows. The really important thing in his life is just only his foot-warmer, he says, smiling. The fear of darkness is what remains. And so involves the film crew in his medical attendance. A friend writes down his dearest childhood memories: how his father once tried to teach him to play on a grass stalk. With the progression of his desease Kore-eda’s cinematography becomes more reckless. He shows us the little drops of condensed water in his respiratory mask. He claims that nobody is special because in the end everybody will die and when the day comes it really doesn’t matter how.

This film is pure pain because of Kore-eda’s own impotence over the situation. But his following works bring back his old calmness and control. In Without Memory (Kioku ga ushinawareta toki, 1996) we watch a young couple making conversation, seated at the kitchen table: “We have two children, isn’t that so?”, “which day is today?”, “but since when do we sit here, darling?“ Kore-eda describes the Wernicke-syndrome, where the patient is not able to remember anything that is longer ago than one hour. The last six years of his life are completely vanished in his memory. He feels only like living for his family and that it seems worth it because in the evening his family remembers the nice pleasure trip during the day. And during dinner he enjoys the stories about it. Every single morning starts completely new and his memory is not his friend anymore. His memory deletes everything and leaves him vulnerable. A disconcerting feeling creeps in while watching these scenes: the wife and their relationship appears in an unfavorable light. Quarrels are impossible because after one hour her husband does not remember a single word or let alone a subject they have been talking about. So reasons leading to a divorce simply don’t exist, namely for the simple reason that the husband does not have any needs or dreams anymore. Kore-eda focuses at that thing that matters for every individual: the memory and the aspirations involved.

In his documentaries Kore-eda shows a deep disbelief towards self-assurance, sensibility and humanistic attitudes. And this deep disbelief seems to contain a much more important fortitude than his stylistic, self-confident and highly sensitive work.