“Actually, after Still Walking was made, I was asked to write a novel version. I accepted eagerly, but then about a month into it I realized how difficult writing a novel can be.”
Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have been garnering international attention from his very first feature, Maborosi, which won the Ozella D’oro at the Venice Film Festival in 1995. He followed this success with After Life (1999), which is perhaps his most well-known film in the US (an American version is currently being adapted by 20th Century Fox). Seamlessly blending documentary (over 400 people were involved) and feature-film techniques, After Life follows workers who are in a waystation for the recently dead and who must choose the single greatest memory from their past lives to take with them into the next. There followed Distance and Nobody Knows, the latter of which is based on the true story of four young children left to take care of themselves after their mother abandons them.
Koreeda’s interest in working with documentary elements and dramatizations of real-life stories is perhaps a natural result of his having started out as a documentary filmmaker; his subjects have included the first man in Japan to make public the fact that he had AIDS, and a Korean man who “passed” as Japanese for most of his life.
His latest feature, Still Walking, has been hailed by Stephen Holden of the New York Times as “the closest thing to a masterpiece” playing in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Koreeda has described Still Walking as having come out of recently having lost both of his parents. The story of a family who meets for their annual remembrance of a sibling lost fifteen years before, the movie takes place over a single day. As the director himself has stated, there are no major events in the film; only the before and after are examined, because, according to Koreeda, “that is precisely where the essence of life can be found.”
The Rumpus caught up with him at the Fairmount hotel in San Francisco, where he was in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival.
The Rumpus: You studied at Waseda University in Tokyo — famous for its literature department — in order to become a novelist. How did you end up becoming a filmmaker?
Hirokazu Koreeda: I did want to become a novelist, but the program at Waseda was pretty intense in terms of language requirements — two hours of English and four hours of Chinese. I thought, what do I need this for? So I stopped going to class. In the neighborhood around Waseda, there were all these movie theaters, so every morning I left the house and watched movies instead of going to class. The experience of encountering films then is one of my greatest memories. Before that I’d never paid any attention to directors, but there I was taking a crash course in Ozu, Kurosawa, Naruse, Truffaut, Renoir, Fellini. Because I’ve always been naturally a more introspective person, I was more interested in becoming a screenwriter than a director.
Rumpus: But then you made documentaries before you made feature films.
Koreeda: First I wrote the screenplay for Nobody Knows and showed it to people at the studios without luck. But around that time I was making a documentary about an official in the ministry of the environment who committed suicide. This man oversaw cases surrounding the victims of Minamata disease, which was a huge controversy at the time — a corporation had been found illegally dumping mercury into a river, causing thousands of deaths, horrifying disfigurement, blindness, paralysis, for which they denied culpability. This man was a morally upright person, and he was in a bind. The government didn’t want to pay out any money or admit that there was a problem, but the victims he met were clearly suffering terribly, and he sympathized with them. He was caught in the middle and ended up committing suicide.
I interviewed his wife for a television documentary and afterward wrote a book of nonfiction about it. I was deeply moved by her reaction to her husband’s suicide — how she was able to make sense of it and how and if she would be able to get on with her life. I worked on this book for two years. A producer who read it told me about a novel, Maborosi, by the writer Teru Miyamoto, that had a similar theme, and suggested I direct an adaptation of it. I’d actually read the novel as a student, but then when I looked at it again it really struck me — the core of the story was the same, about a woman trying to grapple with her husband’s suicide. I mulled over this project for five years and then finally filmed it. So my first feature took this long path from documentary to nonfiction to screen adaptation of a fictional work.
Rumpus: Your newest film, Still Walking, has more personal origins than your other films. How did this affect the making of it?
Koreeda: It’s not totally autobiographical, but I based the characters on people close to me, and a lot of the dialogue actually came from things said in my family. But whereas the challenge of, say, Nobody Knows was to take events from a real incident and then try to try to get as close as possible to the characters so I could understand them, in Still Walking it was quite the opposite: in order to avoid sentimentality and to be able to write the screenplay with the kind of humor and irony necessary to keep the story moving, I needed to distance myself as much as I could from the characters, to try to get to a point where I could view them objectively.
Rumpus: Maborosi drew comparisons to the films of Yasujiro Ozu when it came out. Still Walking seems reminiscent of Ozu’s work as well — perhaps more so.
Koreeda: When I made Maborosi, I was aware of drawing from Ozu’s style in framing certain scenes — unsuccessfully, to be honest. But Still Walking was so personal that I really set aside any consideration of technique or style or influence and just worked intuitively. The motif of family in Still Walking is similar to Maborosi, so perhaps that’s where the Ozu comparison comes from. Actually, seeing the movie now in completed form, I’d say it has more in common with Naruse’s work than with Ozu’s.
Rumpus: What about camera angles? You stick mostly to medium shots, with a minimum of close-ups, and the framing of them is similar to Ozu’s famed “tatami-eyed view.”
Koreeda: The biggest considerations I had were practical: how do you move such a large number of actors around a small space? So, for example, if I have to have the mother bring a pot of tea from the kitchen to the living room and serve it to the others, how do I, on a practical level, get everyone into the frame? Any decisions I made about the camera angles or movement came out of necessity, versus any sort of stylistic choice.
Rumpus: You’re able to get some of the most natural acting from children I’ve ever seen. Was there any particular method to this?
Koreeda: Well, the movie is pretty tightly scripted. But with the actors playing the children, I didn’t give them a script. All I told them was that this was a movie about going to their grandparents’ house during summer vacation, and that they should just run around and do whatever came naturally. The adult actors had to act around this; they had to deliver some very specific lines without knowing what the children around them would do or say. This collision of a predetermined and more random elements is something I’ve always been drawn to, and that I was pretty satisfied with in the final result.
Rumpus: Has the foreign reaction to your films ever taken you by surprise?
Koreeda: Yes. For one, I never thought Still Walking would be of any interest to Westerners or picked up overseas.
Koreeda: I didn’t think Westerners would get it at all. I figured, for example, that they would sit and think, why don’t these people ever just say what they’re thinking? And then the characters themselves don’t experience much growth, if any, from beginning to end.
I don’t believe in making movies to cater to a foreign audience. You never know what the reaction is going to be anyhow. At the time I made Maborosi, the Japanese movies getting any foreign attention were all period dramas and seemed to be about some representative element of Japanese life, and my movie was contemporary movie about one specific woman trying to understand her husband’s suicide. But then foreign critics right away made sweeping comparisons to haiku, noh theater, and directors like Ozu, as if the movie were somehow representative of Japan — which was, well, not what I was after. Similarly, with After Life, I deliberately set out to make a movie that was unlike what I imagined the foreign conception of Japan to be, and I figured non-Japanese wouldn’t find it interesting at all. But then again to my surprise it was also well received. Perhaps there was a stylistic element they were responding to — I was aware of Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, that forties documentary style, while I was making it — so maybe that was it. At any rate, I don’t concern myself with what the critics will say; you really have no idea anyway. That’s part of the fun of making movies, seeing what the reaction will be.
Rumpus: To what extent is a film’s reception in Japan dependent on its reception overseas?
Koreeda: If a movie is nominated for, say, an Academy award, that movie will instantly become popular in Japan. There’s always been a bit of a complex the Japanese have about being taken seriously in the West. At the same time, the contemporary Japanese directors who are well-known in the West — say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase — are mostly unknown to Japanese, particularly of the younger generation. One of the more problematic aspects of the current state of cinema in Japan is that the movies playing in the theaters are by and large made not by film studios but by broadcasting companies. They’re either extensions of popular television dramas or adaptations of manga or anime. Younger Japanese are simply not being exposed to good films. That situation needs to change.
Rumpus: To go back to our first question, do you ever think about writing novels? What about doing more documentaries?
Koreeda: Actually, after Still Walking was made, I was asked to write a novel version. I accepted eagerly, but then about a month into it I realized how difficult writing a novel can be. I finished it and it was published, but it was difficult. As far as documentaries go, I believe unreservedly that they serve an important function in our culture. I’d love to be able to make both documentaries and feature films simultaneously, but so far that hasn’t happened.