Exclusive: An Interview with Still Walking’s Hirokazu Kore-eda

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Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life imagined a hereafter in which the dearly departed face a profound order: single out a favorite memory to retain for eternity, with the rest left to the ether. Memory is one of the acclaimed Japanese director’s obsessions, along with loss and what happens to those left in that wake. Whether Maborosi‘s disconcerted widow or the young brood abandoned in a Tokyo apartment by their mother in Nobody Knows, Kore-eda’s characters are vulnerable but never exploited. Quite the contrary: he treats each lived-in presence with an empathy that traces back to his earlier years of lensing humanistic documentaries for Japanese TV.

Kore-eda’s sixth feature, Still Walking (now in limited release) chronicles the fraught, day-long reunion of the Yokoyama family. They gather to honor the 15th anniversary of the eldest son’s passing, but his outsized memory and being together causes long-standing resentments and regrets to come home. The film is quiet, elegiac, and full of such tactile life that it evokes one’s own familial memories. We met with Kore-eda (and his translator) during the Tribeca Film Festival to talk about his latest and to ask him about his best-loved memory. (Read our review of Still Walking here).

Flavorpill: What makes the Yokoyamas such a relatable family?

Hirokazu Kore-eda: My intention was to portray my own family. What I wanted to portray with the character of the mother was the idea that you don’t say bad things to people to their face. You wait until they leave the room and you say things behind their back. It’s a principle for her, her philosophy. It’s not limited to just my mother. It’s common to all Japanese people to go through life avoiding confrontation. It’s a certain kind of wisdom, a way to survive, to keep a family going. So I thought that I was portraying a very domestic, very Japanese home life and that it would be received by other cultures as incomprehensible and that the [West] would criticize this as not pursuing growth. But, people in France, Spain, New York, and Toronto — everyone says it reminds them of their family. I’m actually very surprised that Western audiences would perceive it as similar.

FP: That personal correlation might be due to the film’s structure. It’s composed of warm, representative moments which — come the credits — echo as shared memories between the family and the audience. Why did you limit your family portrait to 24 hours instead of, say, a weekend?

HK: This is a script I wrote right after my mother passed away. If you focus on a longer period, you end up portraying the process of aging, the process of death. It necessarily becomes much more sentimental — and a little bit schmaltzy. That’s something I really wanted to avoid. I wanted to strike a single moment where the mother is still very active and strong.

FP: In Distance, the characters gather on the third anniversary of Japan’s Ark of Truth tragedy. In Still Walking, the family reunites on 15 years after Junpei’s death. What power or resonance do anniversaries hold?

HK: To gather a family at their parent’s house after they become adults… it’s really only on the Day of the Dead, the Obon festival, and New Year’s. It’s almost necessary to choose a day like that in order to gather the family. The anniversary of someone’s death, that’s a day where, even if it’s someone you may have forgotten about in your daily life, you really feel much closer to their presence. I wanted to portray the differences and discrepancies between the various family members in their relationship and how they remember the dead.

FP: In your films, a key figure is often missing. What is it about absence — and memory — that lures you with such singularity and regularity?

HK: These are themes I do like, but I’m not conscientiously focusing on them. As a child, my hobby was archeology. I’d leave school, get on my bike with my little shovel, and head out to a place where there were old pots and old ceramic pieces left behind. I’d dig by myself and get really excited when I found a small piece of an old pot. Then I’d take it home and clean it off with a toothbrush. These are pieces I still treasure and keep, and they still decorate my office today. I think I was always really fascinated by things that are left behind, imagining what was there.

FP: The acting, as usual, seems so organic. How scripted was the film?

HK: There’s almost no improvisation in the film; it’s exactly according to a written script. If there’s a line that needs to be spoken, for example, during the time that the mother crosses from the kitchen into the living room, but the physical distance prevents this whole line from being spoken, then we would revise the writing to make it fit. We did a lot of that before we started shooting.

FP: There are the signs of age throughout the house, least of all on the parents themselves. For instance, Hiroshi Abe’s character notices a bar support near the bathtub. Is this why you made him an art restorer?

HK: Most doctors want their children to become doctors. If they have an eldest son, the eldest son will become a doctor and the second son will often go into music, art, or movie-making. I wanted his character to have gone to art school, but he’s not quite talented enough to be a painter so he settles into the profession of being an art restorer. Like doctors repair people, restorers fix works of art. I wanted there to be something — even if it’s not quite the same — that reflected each other.

FP: With the unhurried pace of your films, which often feature moments of atmospheric and docudramatic observation, how important is it for you to be your own editor?

HK: The rhythm of the film which you’re experiencing as a viewer, it definitely comes out of me writing a script, then directing it, and then editing it myself. I think it’s a very important part of the process to create that pace.

FP: Imagine that you’re a character from After Life. If you had to choose one cinematic memory, what would it be?

HK: There used to be a great art-house film theatre in Ginza that I’d go to when I was cutting classes in college. I would just hang out there and see movies. When I went, there’d be a lot of office workers, a lot of salarymen who played hooky from work, some taking naps in the theatre. But most watched a lot of movies.

There was one instance — in the spring of my 19th year — when they screened Kurosawa’s Ikiru. At the end of this film, everybody in the theatre stood up and clapped. There were no actors, no directors — nobody was there to be clapped for. I understand that you’d clap at the end of a play or a live show, but for a film, this was a really new experience for me. Everybody there, they really weren’t expecting this. They were just looking for a place to leave their responsibilities. I think they really enjoyed this movie from the bottom of their heart. That was the moment when I realized that film is really powerful, that film is amazing. And I think that experience strongly influenced my decision to not become a novelist, but to make films.