Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose new film Still Walking opens today, is one of our era’s most acclaimed international filmmakers. While he may be most familiar to American audiences for his fantastical 1998 hit After Life (a film set in the literal afterlife), it has been through more realistic, observational dramas of loss — particularly 2004’s runaway award-winner Nobody Knows and 2001’s devastating Distance, both of which broke out at Cannes — that Kore-eda has built his reputation. However, one thing truly sets the director apart from the other blue-chip auteurs of the film-festival circuit: his constantly changing style, whether it’s handheld verité in Nobody, irreverent melodrama in his 2006 samurai drama Hana, or the still, long takes of 1995’s Maborosi. Still Walking, a somber drama about a subtly dysfunctional family gathering together for the anniversary of a beloved son’s death, is yet another departure of sorts, blending the static, eye-level realism one might expect for a film like this with a surprising lightness of touch — so that the resulting film, at times, is as much a droll comedy of manners as a devastating portrait of familial breakdown. Kore-eda sat down with Vulture on a recent trip to New York.
Your previous film was Hana, a samurai revenge film, and you’d indicated before that your intention was to go in a more genre-oriented direction. But now, with Still Walking, you’ve made another observational family drama.
After making Nobody Knows, which had a very documentary feel to it, I wanted to break away and do something that felt very fictional. So I thought of a genre piece — a musical or a period film. After September 11, there was a period when war felt very close, very much a part of everyday life — even in Japan. And there was this idea of legitimized revenge killing. So I became interested in that, and this story of a samurai who is bound to do an honor killing. That genre seemed to work perfectly for that. But ultimately, Hana also deals with the same themes as Still Walking and my other films: memory, death, absence. So I don’t see Still Walking as a return to my former style. It’s more that Hana was a very detailed, very highly produced period film, and this is, again, a contemporary film.
Still Walking is also a surprisingly gentle film — although you’re dealing with grim themes like death and memory, there’s a lightness here, both through the mise-en-scène and the music.
This movie started from a place of mourning and regret and sadness, from a very dark place. I wanted to push away from those negative feelings, so I decided to keep it light. There’s definitely a dry sense of humor in the film, and that’s something I focused very much on.
You allow your characters to be petty. They’re not ennobled by suffering.
When I made Nobody Knows, a foreign critic said to me, “If this movie had been made in the West, in Hollywood, at the end of the movie the mother would be caught by the police and punished, or she’d come home and apologize to the family and they’d all be reunited.” But in the movie, nobody is judged in any way. Some have likened that to the films of the great Japanese master Mikio Naruse, whose work I admire very much. So I’m always happy to hear that: I’ve always wanted to have that kind of non-judgmental relationship with my characters.
Since you brought up Hollywood: Do you really think an American remake of After Life can be any good?
When I was originally approached about a remake, their idea was to do a comedy with Hollywood actors. I thought that would be a totally different story, and in fact very interesting. But now the producers have changed multiple times, and the script has been rewritten, so I don’t really know what the plans are anymore. I am still looking forward to it — but of course I am worried.
Setting seems to be very important in your films — the house in Still Walking, the apartment in Nobody Knows, for example. To what extent does a location determine the story and the style of a film for you?
Location is definitely very important. Sometimes there are story lines that come out of a location once it’s found, but I’ve never worked starting from zero for a location. For example, though, when I think back to the final scene of Still Walking, outside the cemetery: It’s the only crane shot in the film, where the camera rises and you see the tree, then the street, then the town, and then the ocean. When I found that location, I thought, “Okay, I can finally make this movie.” It’s a big factor whether you find these locations or not. In Nobody Knows, finding the apartment that the movie takes place in made a huge difference. Once we found it and saw that it has a veranda, we thought about how we can use this veranda, how we can use this landing on the stairs. The scenes that came out of the particular elements of this location tended to be stronger.
We’ve already discussed the observational and subtle nature of so many of your films. So what does a Hirokazu Kore-eda script look like? How much of a film is planned out in advance? Do you improvise at all?
With this particular film, the script was very detailed and specific. Everything you see in the finished movie was written. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evolve over time. Like you said, I work in an observational way: When we go into rehearsal, after seeing a line come out of an actor’s mouth, I listen very carefully to see if it sounds natural coming out of this human body. Can this line be very naturally delivered, while someone else is walking from the living room to the kitchen, for example? So I make adaptations and revisions along the way, depending on how that process worked. So things are rarely set in stone.
Is that one of the reasons why your films are so different from one another in style? So many directors today usually work one style of filmmaking, but yours rarely remains fixed.
As far as changing styles go, I think for an audience maybe it’s easier if a director’s style remains fixed, but for me, it’s not so much me adapting myself to the material but rather something that just happens. There might come a time when my style becomes much more solidified — I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing for a creator.
Your new film Air Doll premiered at Cannes. What can you tell me about it?
It’s based on a very short comic. The premise is that there’s a blow-up doll who leaves the apartment and meets and interacts with people, and becomes more and more human. At the core of the film is the nature of humanity: What does it mean to have a heart, to have a soul? I made it with the intention of [it] being like a poem. And the camera is always moving. So, again, it’s a style that’s very different from my other films.