By DENNIS LIM
DEATH looms large in the films of the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The young heroine of his feature debut, “Maborosi” (1995), is haunted by the inexplicable suicide of her seemingly happy husband. In the metaphysical fable “After Life” (1998), the newly dead are asked to pick a single earthly recollection to keep for eternity, displacing all other memories. “Distance” (2001) observes the grief and shame of the relatives of cult members who killed themselves after carrying out a bio-terrorist attack.
With good reason Mr. Kore-eda, 47, has a reputation as a poet of bereavement. But as he pointed out in a interview, his movies are less about death and dying than about life lived in the shadow of death — an important distinction for this most meticulous of filmmakers. “I’m less interested in death itself than in people whose lives are touched by it,” he said, speaking through a translator while in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
Mr. Kore-eda’s sixth feature, “Still Walking,” set to open Aug. 28, is another fine-tuned elegy as well as his most personal work to date: a direct response to the death of his mother, whom he nursed in the last two years of her life. Precisely for that reason, despite having confronted the abyss of mortality in film after film, he could not bring himself to get too close this time.
“I didn’t want it to come too much from the mourning and sadness in my own life,” he said. “I didn’t want to make a movie where I had to portray a death.”
One practical solution was to keep the time frame concise. Except for a brief epilogue, “Still Walking” unfolds over a summer day and night, during a family gathering to mark the anniversary of the eldest son’s death.
“If I had made a film about my mother that covers a period of a few years, you would inevitably see the process of aging and the process of dying,” Mr. Kore-eda said. “And to be honest, I wasn’t ready for that.” He chose instead to present “one day as a cross-section of her life, one day when she was still well and active and happy.”
Mr. Kore-eda, who studied literature at Waseda University in Tokyo, began his career making documentaries for Japanese television. Some of these rarely screened films will be shown at a retrospective devoted to Mr. Kore-eda, the first in New York, that runs from Friday through Sept. 1 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. The themes of his fiction films — loss, remembrance, resilience — and his signature empathetic approach to traumatized characters can be detected in much of his early nonfiction work.
“However ...” (1991) interweaves the life stories of two suicides: an official in charge of Japan’s Social Welfare Bureau and a woman who was a casualty of its failures. “August Without Him” (1994) is about the first Japanese man who admitted to contracting H.I.V. through sexual contact. The subject of “Without Memory” (1996) suffers from a rare kind of amnesia that prevents his brain from forming new memories.
In keeping with his documentary background, Mr. Kore-eda’s fiction films are often rooted in actual events and personal experiences. “Maborosi” is adapted from a novel, but Mr. Kore-eda has said that in shaping his lead character, he had in mind the widow of the suicidal bureaucrat he interviewed in “However. ...” “After Life,” which has clear affinities with “Without Memory,” has its roots in childhood recollections of his grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s. The homicidal cult in “Distance” is modeled on Aum Shinrikyo, the group responsible for the 1995 sarin-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system. “Nobody Knows” (2004), about four young siblings waiting in vain for the flighty mother who has abandoned them in a Tokyo apartment, is based on a real-life case that scandalized Japan in the late ’80s.
While “Still Walking” is not strictly autobiographical, Mr. Kore-eda filled the film with sensory triggers that take him back to his childhood in the rural outskirts of Tokyo. The title comes from the lyrics of a ’60s pop hit called “Blue Light Yokohama” (it’s heard in the movie), a favorite of his mother, who loved the song’s romantic evocation of cosmopolitan glamour. Much attention is lavished on the cooking and consumption of food, like the corn tempura that is Mr. Kore-eda’s Proustian madeleine. This was a boyhood staple, he said, made with corn harvested from a neighboring field, and he captures every last detail of its preparation, from the shaving of the kernels off the cob to the sound of the fritter bubbling in hot oil.
Amid these fond memories Mr. Kore-eda maintains his unsentimental gimlet eye for the emotional breach and the psychological impasse. Beneath surface niceties, a painful gulf exists between the grown children and their parents, and almost everyone (not least the doting mother) has a capacity for hurtful, passive-aggressive remarks. “That kind of relationship, where the parent and the child are very out of sync emotionally, it’s very reflective of my personal experience,” Mr. Kore-eda said.
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the family’s only surviving son, is clearly Mr. Kore-eda’s surrogate, and the movie’s filial dynamics mirror his own relationships with his parents. “Like you see in the film, my father and I had nothing to talk about except baseball,” he said. Ryota, a picture restorer, also must bear the open disapproval of his gruff doctor father (Yoshio Harada), who is frustrated that no one will inherit his medical practice. (In Mr. Kore-eda’s case, he said, his father supported his decision to be a filmmaker, but his mother “was against it all the way.”)
The mother (Kirin Kiki) is at first glance a warmer figure, but it’s not long before her neuroses reveal themselves. “All my mother ever wanted to talk about was what she hated about my father and the times he cheated on her when he was younger,” Mr. Kore-eda said. (There are similar exchanges in the film.) “It really irritated me, and I told them they had to sort things out between themselves.” He added, “Looking back on that, I see that it was really cold of me as a son.”
At the Tribeca festival screening “Still Walking” was introduced as a homage to Yasujiro Ozu, Mr. Kore-eda said, a characterization he takes issue with. “Still Walking” bears a more than passing resemblance to the “home dramas” that Ozu elevated to an art: spare, intimate films about the day-to-day domestic troubles of ordinary people. But while Ozu’s characters are paragons of calm acceptance in the face of life’s cruelties and disappointments, the characters in “Still Walking” are pricklier and less reconciled, and they have a harder time concealing their resentments.
“I think my parents would have been more comfortable if they were more like characters in an Ozu film,” Mr. Kore-eda said. A more relevant Japanese master, “in terms of a worldview I feel much closer to,” he added, is Mikio Naruse, whose characters are usually more openly anguished: “His movies really understand that humans are flawed creatures, and he makes no judgment against them.”
While most of Mr. Kore-eda’s films have been in a vein of quiet humanism, he has branched out on occasion, with more obviously commercial efforts like the pacifist samurai period piece “Hana” (2006) and the new “Air Doll,” a whimsical tale, adapted from a manga serial, of a blow-up sex doll that comes to life. “It’s very much a film about what it means to be human,” Mr. Kore-eda said. “You have a doll that is becoming more and more human, surrounded by people who are becoming less and less human.” (“Air Doll,” which had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is still awaiting distribution in the United States.)
Mr. Kore-eda said he had expected “Still Walking,” which he considers his “most Japanese film,” to lose some of its nuances in translation. “There’s no confrontation, no growth in the relationships,” he said. “In Japan this is a way to maintain peace and to get through life. It’s a survival technique that I didn’t think the Western world would understand.”
But the reactions at screenings around the world have proved him wrong. “The responses are more or less the same, whether in Europe, America or Japan,” he said. He is used to international audiences approaching his work from across cultural divides: people looked for religious connotations in “After Life”; “Nobody Knows” prompted questions about the Japanese child welfare system.
“But this time, “ he said, “they laugh in the same places, cry in the same places, and they ask the same questions. It seems to be a film that evokes a very basic level of emotion.”