Documentarists of Japan # 12
While we took a break from the "Documentarists of Japan" interview series in the last issue, we return here for the twelfth time to speak to Koreeda Hirokazu whose work covers a variety of mediums and genres, from television to film, documentary to fiction. Koreeda, who has made six programs for television and two films, was able to rearrange his busy schedule to be interviewed just before the national release of After Life in April 1999. Documentary Box editors Aaron Gerow and Tanaka Junko spoke to Koreeda at TV Man Union.
Gerow (G): I'd like to ask you first what made you get into film and television. Were you interested in them when you were young?
Koreeda (K): Yes, I loved film and TV. I guess I'm of the generation that was brought up watching the most television. I first got interested in it through watching television dramas and documentaries. Once I went to university, I consciously started to go to the cinema to see films more often. I intended to become a novelist when I went to university but around the end of my teens my interest shifted from print to film. I never made my own 8mm films or joined a group activity such as a film circle. I would spend my time reading scenarios and going to the cinema by myself instead. Knowing that I wanted to work with images, when I graduated I chose television production out of all the options open to me.
G: As you just mentioned, many of the people active in the film world now were "8mm kids." So why, as someone who was interested in film from early on, did you choose television?
K: The problem with film was that I hadn't made my own films and I had no way of getting in. We knew that the majors were finished, so hardly anyone of my generation was thinking of working in the studios. I did think of joining Iwanami Productions but they'd pretty much stopped taking people on and someone there told me, "We're concentrating on PR films." Thinking of how I could get behind a camera, a television production company was the next choice. Also, I was particularly interested in TV Man Union as a student. At the time our bible was Omae wa tada no genzai ni suginai ("You're Nothing More than the Present"), a collection of articles on approaches to making television programs written by the people who created TV Man Union. I agreed with a lot of their thinking about television so I thought why not take the entrance exam.
G: Were you interested from the start in filming documentary?
K: No, thinking about it now I wasn't sure at all. I think the desire to eventually make fiction was pretty strong.
Tanaka (T): At that time were there any documentary directors that you particularly liked or anyone you aimed to emulate?
K: I guess Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriaki were major presences in the film world. I would say at the time that I liked their work but I didn't really understand how important they were until after I had started making films myself. I also liked television documentary of the 1960s made by the people who created TV Man Union. I still have strong memories of documentaries made up of street interviews such as The Rising Sun ("Hinomaru") and You Are . . . ("Anata wa . . .").
G: How was it when you actually entered TV Man Union?
K: It was completely different from what I expected. Now it seems like just one of those things but at the time I felt like I'd been cheated. I guess my imagination had gotten ahead of me. When I actually joined, the reality was completely different from my fantasy. A production company is just a regular business looking to make a profit, supported by run-of-the-mill programs. At first that gap was really painful to me. I also had no talent for being an assistant director. I was useless on the shoot and people would get angry with me every day. You don't often have people getting mad and shouting at you in everyday life. Especially in the television business, the period when you have to suppress your own personality lasts a long time. I spent the first year worrying about my own lack of talent. I used to watch 300 or 400 movies a year when I was at university but in the year after I started work I only watched three movies. I had the sense that I was rapidly withering away and was filled with doubt over whether I could ever develop into a director in those circumstances. To put it simply, it was a bit like the "freshman blues." Once I started my second year I managed to recover some of my own personal approach.
T: Three films? On the other hand, now you watch whole series of films at film festivals . . .
K: I see about a hundred films a year, but once I start shooting I don't want to watch movies. I don't see all that many when I'm editing either. Even when I go to foreign film festivals, I spend most of the time in my room writing (laughs). Even so, I watch more films now than I did then.
G: What did you learn from working under the television documentarists of the 1960s?
K: The people who made the television documentaries that I liked so much had already risen beyond the studio floor and didn't actually make the programs any more. It seems to me that 1960s television documentaries were quite heavily involved in formal experimentation. But by the time I entered, in the late 1980s, that period of formal experimentation in both drama and documentary had ended. Even taking some television "talento" (personalities) somewhere and filming them had become a genre of documentary. There are some entertaining examples of that type, but to be blunt, I didn't think the documentaries being made at the time were interesting. It's really rude of me to say so, since I didn't direct them myself, but I was bored by the productions I was assigned to.
G: Once you started your second year you were in a position to resist to some extent?
K: "Resist" makes it sound better than it was. "Avoid" is more like it. I really respect assistant directors who can work hard to make the productions they are involved in interesting, but I just avoided work. So while I stayed involved to some extent in the company's productions, since that was my job, my interest turned completely toward making my own films. If you think it's cowardly, that's what it was.
G: But that's an interesting avoidance strategy-making your own films.
K: Thinking about it now, that's true. But at the time that was the only thing I could do.
G: That's how you came to make Lessons from a Calf ("Mo hitotsu no kyoiku: Ina Shogakko Harugumi no kiroku," 1991). How did you come to choose that story?
K: After a year of working, I was in danger of losing sight of what I myself wanted to shoot. I wanted to reinforce it again. So I wrote lots of proposals and scripts, groping for what fit me. As part of the same process, I thought, "Why not just start filming something?" Since I hadn't made 8mm films, I just felt I had to get my hands on a camera, and then when I thought, "What shall I shoot?" that television program came to mind. That elementary school had actually been in the news several times. When I was at university there was a feature on TV Asahi's News Station program about the "Harugumi" class when they were in the first year. The faces of the children from that program leapt to mind and I thought I'd like to try filming them. I started by asking the teacher if I could visit the school and was surprised by how readily he agreed. Anyway, after coming back from playing with the kids from that class, eating school lunch with them (laughs), and generally having a good time, I decided that's what I'd like to shoot. They were just then deciding to raise another cow, milking it and so on, so I asked the teacher and was given permission to film.
G: It seems to me that you didn't just want to photograph those children's faces: you were also particularly interested in problems of education and social welfare.
K: I was interested in the things they teach at that school. Just by visiting that class and watching the lesson I could see that the teachers made it so that the children could clearly express their feelings. When I thought of my own childhood, the first thing that came to mind was that my emotions weren't so liberated when I was at school. Of course, expressing your feelings openly can lead to fights as well. In that school the whole curriculum was organized around the theme of raising the cow, so the children could see exactly what the purpose of each lesson was. I was envious. In the first place I thought that I could experience for myself how the children spend their time . . . that's the serious way of putting it. Actually, there was a girl there that I really liked (laughs).
G: The one girl that you focus on?
K: No, a different girl (laughs). Looking at the class, there was one girl who made me think, "I want to film her." Well, she was my type (laughs). The way that girl talked was really interesting. If I was in the same class as her, I'm sure I'd have fallen in love with her. That's a pretty impure motive (laughs). I'm kind of embarrassed about it, so I try to avoid mentioning it.
T: I felt the scene where the children squeeze the cow's udders was really exciting. Didn't you feel that when you were there filming? I thought while I was watching it, "This is really erotic."
K: (momentarily speechless) Wait a minute. There wasn't time to feel that kind of thing when we were filming the milking scene. With cows, you can only approach them from one side. They say that if you have people on both sides the cow is likely to kick one or the other, so filming the milking from the opposite side was really dangerous. The kids might have gotten kicked too. But the whole process of breeding, calving, and milking the cow is bound to raise the question of sex, isn't it? The children were just passing from the 4th to the 5th grade so it's not surprising that touching the cow would stimulate their sexual interest. The children were very serious about giving their reports on parent's day, but at other times that interest would come out.
T: How much did you shoot in the end?
K: About 200 hours.
G: You did that all in your spare time?
K: It wasn't really spare time. I sneaked off of work.
G: The assistant director has to work particularly hard in the television business. That must have been really difficult.
K: Yes, it was. That's why I sneaked off work, to tell the truth. I tried to do it so that I wouldn't cause anyone else trouble. I'd finish work as early as possible, having already finished the next day's library research. Then I'd write "Tomorrow, library. Back late" on the board and take the night train from Shinjuku. I'd arrive at Ina about 7:00 the next morning, and after half a day's filming, I'd spend three hours on the express bus back to Shinjuku. This was in the days before portable phones so I could sneak off work like this by going back to work in the evening and handing over the research material, saying that I'd just got back from the library.
G: You did this for a year and a half?
K: A bit longer than that. It took about two and a half years from starting to collect material.
G: When did you admit to the company that you'd made this film?
K: I never did tell TV Man Union (laughs). It was right at the time that Fuji Television had a great late night documentary slot called NONFIX. Fuji's producer, Kanemitsu Osamu, specialized in variety shows and let me try all kinds of things, which was fantastic. We first met when I went with a TV Man Union producer to show him a proposal that became our first production together, the social security documentary However . . . ("Shikashi . . . fukushi kirisute no jidai ni," 1991). Fortunately, the film was well-received and he asked us to make another film soon. That's when I told him that I'd actually been making a film for two and a half years and showed him the video. "Okay, let's do it," he said and that was that.
T: So However . . . was your first proposal to get accepted.
K: Yes, that's right.
G: I don't know the television industry very well, nor how assistant directors get promoted to director and shoot their own projects, but if you were a bad AD, as you say you were, I'm just wondering how you managed to become a director.
K: While I was going back and forth from Ina and working as an assistant director, I was also working as location director on several new regular TV shows, going abroad and so on. So although my position was still half assistant director, I was also involved in the planning. Fuji producer Kanemitsu said, "It's late night, low budget, and low ratings. I won't tell you what to include, so do what you like. That's the only advantage this slot has. So long as your plan is okay, I won't ask how much experience you have." It was really enjoyable work.
G: However . . . is about social welfare. Why did you want to make this documentary?
K: Why, I wonder. I don't usually go looking for new stories. One time when I got together with old school friends, we started talking about our childhood days. One classmate said, "Actually, when I was young we were on welfare. But I was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone else." When he said that, quite a few of the other people there said the same thing. In Europe and the USA, the sense that welfare is a citizen's right that guarantees one's livelihood is really strong. But in Japan we have the sense that it's charity received from our superiors, so we feel guilty about receiving help from welfare. I was struck by the question of why what should be a citizen's right had become established in this society as something that people were embarrassed to speak about. From that point I became interested in the background to social welfare and after doing some research I wrote a simple proposal.
G: But However . . . , the film you shot, was quite different from that proposal.
K: It turned into something totally different (laughs). When I took it to Fuji, in fall 1990-September I think-they said, "Looks interesting. Okay, let's do it." It was six months from then to the broadcast. During that time, while continuing to collect material, the structure of the film became clear. I decided to use as one pillar of the film a tape we'd discovered of a woman who committed suicide because her welfare payments were cut off. I thought I'd tie in that woman's testimony on the tape with the testimony of her case worker from the social security division and maybe one other person as well. The program itself still has some of that structure: I wanted to edit in various other people's stories around the testimony on the tape.
T: So you didn't start from a specific death; instead, you heard of it during the course of your research.
K: That's right.
G: In that research you came across the suicide of Yamanouchi Toyonori from the Environment Agency.
K: That's right. The shape of the program was almost completely decided when Mr. Yamanouchi died on December 5th. At first there was no connection between Minamata disease and social welfare or public assistance. But when Yamanouchi's career was recounted in the newspaper I realized that he was division chief of the Social Welfare Bureau of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the most important bureaucratic position in the administration of public assistance. When that caught my attention, I read on and realized that his other posts-in charge of social security for the handicapped and for the elderly-were all relatively low positions, posts that the elite would never take. In the end he left the Ministry of Health and Welfare and went to the Environment Agency. I was interested in the string of posts that he had held. When I looked into it a little I found that he had dedicated himself to the cause of social welfare quite beyond his role as a bureaucrat, so I decided to make him a subject of the documentary and revised my research accordingly. That led me to his widow. It wasn't until the New Year, after the 49-day-mourning observances, that I decided to approach Mrs. Yamanouchi about interviewing her for the documentary.
G: Interviewing the widow is a particularly sensitive subject, isn't it? Particularly in the case of television, which is broadcast to the whole nation, there must be a lot of people who don't want to be filmed, even in the case of a late night program.
K: That's right. I think it's a very difficult problem. Until that point the wife had refused all requests to speak about her husband. Yamanouchi's death was quite a sensational incident: reporters from weekly magazines surrounded their home and one even dressed in mourning clothes, snuck into in the all-night death vigil, and then wrote about what the wife said to the dead man's friends, as if she had agreed to an exclusive interview. As it happened, in my case I was introduced by a classmate of Yamanouchi's, Ito Masataka (now deceased), who used to be chief editor of Asahi Journal. In his role as a journalist he'd collected a lot of material on Yamanouchi. I first contacted Ito and told him that I was working on a program on welfare and had no intention of giving the suicide a sensationalist treatment. He said he'd see what he could do. When he spoke with Mrs. Yamanouchi, she agreed to speak with me. I think the main reasons I was given permission to film were that I waited a while and that my approach was different from the other media.
G: Did the incident cause you to reflect on the essential violence of the television image?
K: Yes. That's why I was hesitant, to tell the truth. Since I was concerned about the issue, I paid a visit to Mrs. Yamanouchi and told her honestly what I wanted to do. Once I'd said my piece, Mrs. Yamanouchi said, "To me, my husband's death is an intensely personal issue, but I can also see that it is closely tied to larger social problems. If the purpose of the program is to discuss those problems then I think my husband would want me to appear on the program and discuss it." So although I was hesitant about bothering her by paying a visit, in fact she gave me her support and encouragement. If she'd refused me, I intended to abandon the idea.
But it's difficult to know who's position to use in critiquing the Environment Agency. At that stage if I'd taken Mrs. Yamanouchi's side and criticized the Agency, it would have caused trouble for her. It's also not the way I wanted to do it. I wanted to pay careful attention to the editing and camera angles that I used. For example, Yamanouchi wrote suicide notes on two business cards, but I think the note to undersecretary of the Environment Agency is more vehement than the note to family. But if I were to cut from that card to Mrs. Yamanouchi and get her comment on it, and then cut to the Environment Agency, it would be taken as her criticism of the agency. So first I interviewed the family and heard their personal comments, then made it such that I was the one bringing up the issue of the card to the Environment Agency. To tell you the truth, I'm still not sure that it's acceptable to film an interview with a woman who's lost her husband so soon after his death. Of course I do think that the program would never have come together without her story. It is-how can you say it?-an ethical problem. I wonder if I put the strength of the program in front of a kind of ethics. I still feel guilty with regard to this.
T: Did you have any sense that Mrs. Yamanouchi was able to sort out her feelings through the process of talking about them?
K: I wasn't aware of this until much later. After finishing the program I started visiting her often since I was writing a book on the same incident. I gradually came to realize that perhaps talking to me was in a sense part of her process of mourning. Once I started writing the book my sense of purpose became clear. I think the process of conversation itself meant something to her too, so I stopped worrying about our work together.
G: What similarities or differences did you see between making a television program-making images-and writing a book? Why did you decide to write a book?
K: Hmm (thinks deeply). There are many reasons . . . I've always loved writing. I guess that the fundamental structure of my films is based on the structure of writing, though I think that's a weak point for someone who creates film. I wanted to gather together in some form or other the huge amount of material that I couldn't include in the 47 minutes and 10 seconds of the program. At the same time that I came to realize that writing is the best way to overcome that time limitation, I was invited to produce the book. Another important reason is that I wanted to investigate the relationship, if any, between the act of producing a documentary out of images and that of writing a non-fiction book.
T: What did you find out?
K: It's interesting: just as the borders of documentary become vague, so do the boundaries of non-fiction writing. Precisely because writing is subjective, the work of recreating a scene in writing involves a certain amount of fiction. You can tell what an author thinks of non-fiction by the stance they take toward that necessary fictionality in their own writing. Some writers insist on marking quotations as quotation, while others write non-fiction as though you were present at the scene. So it seems to me that there is non-fiction that reads like a novel and fiction that looks like non-fiction. In any case, writing the book made me think that fiction and non-fiction are in the end both fiction after all (laughs). Of course, I intended to write non-fiction, checking the reconstructed conversations against the material and Mrs. Yamanouchi's recollections, but in the end my account also contains the story that I wanted to tell. So now I'm wondering just what is the "I" that is using documentary material to tell the story that I want to tell.
G: On the one hand you resist making documentaries according to the rulebook, but on the other, it seems from listening to you that you have a very strong sense of the ethics or morality of filmmaking. How do you reconcile those two aspects?
K: I have a strong ethical sense, do I? Hmm, that's a difficult question. There are many problems that arise from introducing a camera, with its attendant violence, into a particular reality and so creating an unnatural space that's different from what it was when the camera was not present. I think true documentary means both filmmaker and subject recognizing that fact, and then filming the new kind of human relationships and feelings that emerge due to the intrusion of the camera between them. I think all kinds of methods and techniques should be allowed in order to achieve that. I don't know if you could call it ethical, but I certainly oppose hiding the camera to film what your subject doesn't want to show you, or filming in a way that the subject doesn't approve of.
G: Speaking of film technique, Lessons from a Calf and However . . . have quite distinct styles: one you made by yourself, the other with a full staff; one has no narration, the other does.
K: Well, I'm still exploring how to do that. I'm still searching even now, but I was about 28-years-old when I made those films. I was still trying all kinds of things, finding out what was possible. If you consider them both together, they'd both be called "documentaries," but However . . . is just a compilation piece. In the process up until its completion there were many documentaries. Now, in my heart of hearts, I don't think I'd call the finished product a documentary (laughs). Personally, I wouldn't even call Lessons from a Calfa documentary (laughs). That's to say, in the finished film it's as if I, as the filmmaker, wasn't even there. The film strings together moments when the teacher and the students acted as though they were unaware of my presence. There's no representation of the difference that putting a camera in the classroom made. At the time I had the vague sense that that's how documentaries are made. So I edited out all the bits where the kids turned to me and made V-signs or looked at the camera.
That's how I went about making the film, but I later thought that the camera is right there so it's natural to look at it. I realized that when I made another film, for Tokyo TV's Documentary Human Theater ("Dokyumentari ningen gekijo") series, about mentally handicapped children making clay masks at an institution called "Lunbini Gakuen" in Iwate Prefecture. The kids were so happy to see the camera that they would look at the cameraman and speak to him without reservation, whether he was filming or not. One of the boys at the school put clay on another kid's face, and after getting an impression of the face he made a mask. When I was filming that kid, he turned to me as I stood by the camera and asked, "Is it okay if I take your face?" "Sure," I said, and stepped out in front of the camera, where he took an impression of my face. One evening that same kid was listening to music on his Walkman. He leaned toward the cameraman while he was being filmed and passed him the earphone, asking, "Do you want to listen?" The cameraman reached out and took it and you can hear his voice saying, "Ah, the Beatles, isn't it?" (laughs). When I saw that in the editing room, I thought that this really expresses the shared space of the person filming and the person being filmed at that time. Until that point in my documentaries I had separated the filming person and the filmed subject into two separate dimensions above and below a horizontal plane. But through making that documentary, I managed to build a vertical axis, and was able to film in a shared three-dimensional space. I thought at the time, "This is what it means to represent the presence of the camera at the scene." When I was almost thirty I finally realized, perhaps this is what Ogawa Shinsuke was talking about. That's when I went back to look again at Ogawa's films and re-read his writings, becoming aware for the first time of his true greatness. After making that program I became sensitive to what happens when the camera is present as a foreign object, and deliberately included an awareness of the presence of the camera in my films.
G: That's one of the themes of August without Him ("Kare no inai hachigatsu ga," 1994).
K: That's right. Though it wasn't so much that I did it deliberately than that I just happened to film a few scenes like that and, since I thought they worked well, ended up including a lot of them. The decision to make the time we spent together the central axis of the film was fully intentional, as was the decision to include as a narration my own reflections on that period of time that we shared. About seven or eight years ago I shifted from the relatively objective narration of However . . . to a kind of narration that includes the point of view of the filmmaker, speaking in the first and second person.
G: But in the world of television documentary, especially in the NHK style, the mode of presentation is supposed to be objective, rendering the presence of the filmmaker completely invisible. When you started making films in this way didn't the television station or your superiors put any pressure on you?
K: Yes, they did, but I think the idea that you can eliminate your subjectivity and so achieve a kind of objectivity or impartiality is a myth, a fantasy. Though there are still some people who believe it, I suppose. Most people at NHK still believe that, as do plenty of people in the publishing and newspaper business. They are quite happy to say that if you eliminate your subjectivity you can portray something objectively. Well, I think it's pretty much impossible. But that doesn't mean that I think it's okay to film everything subjectively. There's a much greater responsibility that goes along with that subjectivity, since the writer or filmmaker's own world view comes into question: that's why making films that way is even more demanding on the filmmaker.
G: Does the restrictiveness of that expectation of objectivity make you feel that you would like to give up making documentaries for television and make them on film for theatrical release or something?
K: Yes. I think I've developed as a filmmaker by making the films that I did in my own way, without being so subject to the restrictions of television. But compared to the "documentaries" I could have made if they were done on film, what I have done are "documentary programs," made to fit the limitations of a particular time slot, a kind of "program picture." I have made all kinds of formal and technical experiments in the midst of all those mass-produced program pictures. I'm still doing it because I believe that even in this situation I can produce some interesting pieces.
T: In August without Him, you continued to film Hirata Yutaka even while you knew that he was about to die. In Without Memory ("Kioku ga ushinawareta toki," 1996), I expected Sekine might recover by the end of the film, but instead it ends with his condition unchanged. When you make feature films, do you feel like you should sugar the "harsh reality" that you show in your documentaries?
K: No. If you say that fiction has the function of sugar-coating reality, then I would counter that in some ways fiction cannot equal documentary in that regard. That's a very difficult point. I'm not sure why I want to make fiction films. There are some films that can only be made as fiction. Exactly what kinds of things can't be made as documentary-that's the most difficult question I'm facing right now. The television station that showed Without Memory asked me to offer some hope at the end. The situation Sekine was in put enormous strain on the people around him. I originally intended to end the film on an even harsher note. I thought I'd end it with a scene when I visited him for the first time in many months. He looked surprised and said, "Oh, have we met that often? [You've been coming for] almost two and a half years? I thought we'd just met." Perhaps that would give the audience a jolt, but I couldn't live with myself if I showed something like that to Sekine and his family. So in the end I didn't do it. Even the ending that I finally used in the film is close to the edge of what I think is acceptable.
G: You've made several works that took an unusually long time to make for television documentaries. Why is that? Do you like that kind of filmmaking?
K: No, it's not that I like it (laughs). It's tough when it takes a long time. Yes, I wonder why they end up covering such a long time . . . .
G: Is it perhaps an influence from Ogawa Shinsuke, who also spent a long time shooting his films?
K: No, Ogawa's long-term films, in which he settles down to live in Sanrizuka or Yamagata, and mine are completely different. I don't go to live where I'm filming. Perhaps I haven't yet filmed a subject that would benefit from shooting the film while living together. Perhaps I shoot subjects that suit my visiting periodically as a filmmaker.
G: The reason I ask is because I think that the long production period is to some extent related to the question of memory in your films. Of course one aspect of Without Memory is the way that the long period leads one to think about what Sekine can, or cannot, remember. Also, August without Him is structured by something like flashbacks, in the form of the filmmaker's memories of Hirata Yutaka. Somehow I feel that the length of production and the question of memory are connected.
K: I haven't thought about that. Certainly, I made August without Him after Hirata had passed away, so I made it while calling him to mind, exploring my own memory. Originally, he'd wanted me to keep filming him until he died, but it was emotionally draining to simply film the process of him getting weaker. I also thought that it wouldn't have as much meaning if we shot it that way. Once we started shooting I realized that the relationship between Hirata and myself changed subtly and it would take one or two years to show that. So I wanted to show in the film something of the changing relationship caused by the long period of filmmaking, including how we looked at him.
I also started Without Memory with the same intention, but after I started shooting, Sekine didn't change at all. That is, for the most part the distance between him and me stayed the same. I did become more intimate with his family, but as for my relationship with him, it never changed and neither did his disease. So in the end I wasn't sure when I should stop filming. After I'd tried to get to know him for a couple of years I realized that the way I thought about memory had changed completely. That program is really about the way that my thinking about memory changed over the course of two years. When I realized that, I thought, "Ah, so that's why I shot for such a long time." It seems to me that it doesn't matter how much the subject of the film changes, if I don't change too-if there isn't a kind of chemical reaction between us-then the film loses half its significance.
G: So in the end, after going through that process, what did you learn about memory?
K: Actually, that's what formed the framework of my current film, After Life ("Wandafuru raifu"). This film too has the theme, "people share memories with others." In a word, it's about the discovery that the self is not just something internal. That's something I discovered concretely through the making of Without Memory, but it's also something that I'd already realized in the script for After Life, which I wrote ten years ago. Those ideas that I had when I wrote a script as pure fiction took on clearer form through my experience on a documentary, and became the motivation for making this film.
G: It seemed to me when I watched the film that Mochizuki, the character played by ARATA, was a kind of reminiscent of you as a documentary filmmaker recording other people. Was that deliberate?
K: Hmmm . . . I didn't think about it that deeply when I was making the film, but now when I watch it, that meaning is in there somewhere I think. I'm not that good-looking though (laughs). At the point when I made it the job of the people working there to make films, their words and behavior reflect a lot of my suffering and discoveries in the ten years I've been associated with film and television production. In a sense it became an extremely private film. I've recently become embarrassed at the thought of it being released to the public (laughs). Weird, isn't it?
G: I agree that you could call it private. I think After Life is also very much a film about image and memory. In Without Memory too, when you give Sekine the camera and ask him to film something, perhaps you're exploring whether that can become an support for his memory or not, but in the end the image cannot become a prop for memory and the experiment ends in failure. As for After Life, in the end memory is recreated in the form of an image, people see it and feel that it is real. On the one hand the image is useless, on the other hand the image has potential: on which side of this divide do you stand? That is, what do you think about the relation between image and memory?
K: Sekine was a special case. Ordinary people can use a photograph or some other image to recall all kinds of things. There are many aspects to the role the image plays in memory. In this film we can see many levels of images. There are at least the three kinds of image in the film: people describing their lives, "objective" video records (completely unreal of course) of their lives, and images that recreate the reality shown in the videos according to the person's memories. To divide them simply, the personal narrations are a type of documentary, even though some of the people are telling lies, and the recreated images are a kind of fiction. The fictional images also have extremely low production values. That's partly because of the low budget, but it's also because they're not real. I didn't think they needed to look real when I made the film. I made those unrealistic fictions collide with the narratives, bringing out emotions that did not appear in the narratives, and details of memories that couldn't be talked about. That's what I personally wanted to get at. I also thought the facial expressions, the comments about memory, and the actions that came about after being filtered through those fictions made up a kind of documentary.
The images from the video player are the opposite of that: they were images of real events, but you can't tell from whose perspective they are taken; images in which the subjects don't know they are being filmed. I included them in an attempt to show, "This is what I think a documentary is not." I wanted to include in that film a bold statement of my personal beliefs about documentary, that in order to become a documentary those kind of emotions and human relationships are necessary.
G: That's how I read the film (laughs)-I think you got your point across.
K: Thank you.
T: Speaking of image and memory, apart from seeing, you also remember hearing, taste, smell and so on, don't you? In Maborosi ("Maboroshi no hikari," 1995), the old man always has the radio on. It's as though no matter how many years go by, you'd always remember him whenever you heard the radio. I thought it was extremely interesting how the film makes the presence of the old man felt not through sight but through hearing. Compared with the use of sound and other senses, what are your thoughts on the image, or on vision?
K: In After Life I interviewed many ordinary people, asking them what they would choose as their most important memory. Actually, a sound or a song was the most common response. They also mentioned scents and tastes. Those senses leave an even more intense impression than images do. Surely sound is closer to the human essence than images. That's not a pleasant thing for someone involved in the image business to hear, but it doesn't seem right to me to think of the two as divided like that. In After Life, the middle-aged guy who chose the city tram as his favorite memory recalls a wealth of experiences after he gets on the tram and listens to a tape of its sound. I think people recall images that are evoked by sounds, and recall sounds that are evoked by images. I'm fascinated by images, so that's what I make, but I don't make such a rigorous a distinction between the two.
G: What do you feel are the main differences between techniques for shooting documentary programs and feature films? The reason I ask is that in the documentaries of yours that I've seen you seem to like using close-ups a lot. Faces, or just an eye, or especially the film on Hirata where at the end you repeatedly use a big close up of just his mouth. But in Maborosi there are almost no close-ups like that. Why is there this difference in style?
K: Hmm. There certainly are a lot of close ups in the Hirata film. To put it simply, I guess you could say that I liked his face. When I was making Maborosi, I deliberately eliminated a lot of things. If you heard only the story-a woman loses her husband to suicide, takes the child she is still breast-feeding and remarries, moving to a harbor town on the Noto Peninsula-you'd expect to hear enka (old-fashioned emotional songs) on the soundtrack. Like something Shochiku would make. Even though I liked the novel itself, when it came time to turn it into film I thought about what to do to make it something I would want to see. I thought I'd try to limit the expression of emotion, to create a different kind of emotional expression that didn't depend on close-ups of crying faces to communicate the character's feelings. I was experimenting to see how much I could communicate of the characters' feelings by making the light and shadow and sounds that the central female character experiences reverberate within the frame. I was the one who made the rule, and unfortunately I obeyed it, even though when I got to the shoot and saw Esumi Makiko, there were so many times when I thought, "I'd like to film that expression." Looking back, I regret it-it would have been better if I'd broken the rule. So this time I thought to go to the shoot without preparing a complete storyboard in advance and just point the camera at what I find interesting. I said to the cameraman, "Let's choose techniques from both fiction and documentary without distinguishing between them." The only rule I decided on was that we should use the same approach regardless of whether the person in front of the camera was a professional actor or an amateur.
G: We're coming to the end here. You've become something of a representative of young filmmakers in Japan. One thing I find interesting about that is that, the other day at the program sponsored by the Pia Film Festival, you told that younger generation that there is this way of making films, and that they should think about making documentary as well as fiction. In a sense you've become something of a publicity agent or a teacher for documentary in general.
K: I don't feel like I'm being a teacher. I didn't tell them that out of any sense of responsibility. It's just there were a lot of filmmakers and people who want to be filmmakers in the audience. I get letters every day from filmmakers who say they're struggling with the issues I've mentioned. I've been traveling all over for the publicity campaign for After Life and after they've finished filming their piece, the staff of local television crews often ask the same questions.
T: Do their anxieties overlap with your own experience?
K: Not only does it overlap: the situation for television documentaries hasn't improved at all. The Aum Supreme Truth incident, faked events in documentaries, and the question of neutrality or fairness in television documentary-the same problems have been repeated over the last thirty years without any solution. Of course they may be insoluble problems, but as a consequence we have no guiding principles. When something happens, on the one hand they apologize, and on the other hand they just say things like "documentary is something you just have to edit in the order it was shot." Some people believe that if you just pile up facts then you'll reach the truth. But if you ask, "Okay, what do you think about defining the word 'fact'?" then you get no answer at all. Filmmakers have all kinds of misapprehensions, including about how a tool with all kinds of limitations like a camera can film the truth. Especially in television, documentary has been talked about too much from the perspective of having the right spirit, or theme, or material. The generation above us had the strong sense about documentary that if you treated socially disadvantaged people then you would be fine. They took on things outside of themselves like the cause of social justice. I think that is why there are certainly those in the generation below me who don't want to take on such things in filmmaking. In addition, people working in Japanese television have never learned what responsibility goes along with filming other people. Especially people in production receive only practical on-the-job training. Learning by doing, unless it is very self-conscious, just ends up being the rule of experience: that is, "It's good because the boss said so." There's absolutely no methodological questioning of that on your own terms. But when you go somewhere like the Pia Film Festival, it's the younger generation that's most interested in asking methodological questions such as, "What to film?" "How to film?" "How was that filmed?"
I strongly feel that these kind of questions are increasing and that the division into genres is becoming invalid. In the first place, the boundary between documentary and variety programs has become vague. For example, for a program such as Electric Youth ("Denpa shonen"), * much of the audience doesn't think of it as either a documentary or a variety show. But of course some of the techniques used in Electric Youth are also used in documentaries. I don't like the idea that some technique that's interesting as variety can't also be interesting in documentary. I'd like to ask people what they think of shows like Electric Youth: "It's a manipulated fiction, isn't it?" I don't know whether the people who watch it are really aware, understanding that it's fake while they enjoy the show, or whether they love it because they don't realize that it's fake. I really want to know whether they were truly astonished when it came out that the swan boat in "Electric Youth's Swan Journey" was pulled by a rope or whether the fakery is the reason they enjoy the show. Of course, for me to rate the program highly, they'd have to smoothly pull back to show the boat towing them (laughs). I mean, filming someone working really hard is just like the feeling of a classic documentary. Instead of going back to that kind of classic emotion, if they'd deconstructed it by showing the program staff towing the boat, I think it would have been really fresh.
G: More than a documentary-style way of impressing people, it's feature film kind of emotion . . .
K: Yes, it's a feature-film-style emotion. There's nothing new about that classic method of inviting an emotional response. I wish the audience would view information communicated through images (not just on television) with a cooler perspective. It's no good just wanting to be emotionally moved by what you watch, especially with what's called documentary. That's why I'd like filmmakers to move toward a form of visual expression that makes people aware of how it's made. Unless filmmakers and film audiences create more chances to discuss these methodological issues, and the responsibilities that go along with those new forms, then documentary will never fully develop. If we go on like this then visual expression in television will go into decline before it ever fully matures. The first step requires that filmmakers speak out in public about their own film style and way of thinking about images. It's really important that the audience becomes aware of various methodological problems so that when some of them become filmmakers themselves they will carry that awareness with them in their practical work.
G&T: Thank you very much for your time.
Translated by Michael Raine
* A popular television show that recently has featured unknown comedians performing
long and arduous tasks like pedaling from India to Indonesia in a swan boat. Part
of the show's appeal to some is the sense of reality evinced in the performance
of the feats, one bolstered by the use of hand-held video cameras and other "documentary"
techniques, but the show has come under attack for "faking" some of
Born 1962, Tokyo. After graduating from Waseda University in 1987, joined in TV Man Union. While he has received numerous awards for his documentaries, the beauty of his first dramatic film, Maborosi, released in 1995, garnered widespread attention both locally and overseas. Seen as a representative of a younger generation of directors, he is also currently active on the lecture circuit.
Lessons from a Calf (1991)
However . . . (1991)
August without Him (1994)
Without Memory (1996)
After Life (1998)
Editor's Notes: Further information on Director Koreeda Hirokazu
can be found at