Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s melancholy Still Walking draws on the memories of his late parents to craft the story of a Japanese family who reunite every year on the anniversary of their eldest son’s death. But although the movie’s ostensible subject is regret, it’s also full of life. The way a mother and daughter prepare food together suggests a shared family tradition that endures no matter how frosty the family’s relationship gets.
It isn’t the first time Kore-Eda has found beauty in sorrowful circumstances. 2004’s Nobody Knows took its subject from the sensational case of a mother who left her four children alone in their apartment for months, but Kore-Eda transformed the tabloid subject into a delicate meditation on the fragility of life. The intertwined themes of mortality and memory run deep in his films, most literally in 1998’s After Life, where the deceased must choose a single event from their lives to keep them company for eternity. He’s just as reflective in person, often preceding his answers with long, contemplative pauses. In the middle of a retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, Kore-Eda sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss Still Walking’s autobiographical origins and why he doesn’t consider himself a master. He also produced an impromptu visual aid to demonstrate why comparisons between Still Walking and Yasujiro Ozu’s work are off-base. His friend and subtitler Linda Hoagland provided translation.
The A.V. Club: You write in the press kit that part of the inspiration for this movie was your parents’ recent death. How did that lead you to this particular story?
Hirokazu Kore-Eda: My mother collapsed from a stroke about the time of the release of Nobody Knows, and she then spent the next two years in a hospital. And I felt so guilty about how little attention I paid to her before she collapsed that I tried to visit the hospital every day for at least an hour or two. Although the effects of the stroke made her a little bit fuzzy about the present, she was pretty clear about the past, so she talked a great deal about memories from the past. My sister and I kept a detailed nursing diary that included her stories, whatever stories she would tell that day. There are about five of those notebooks, and so I decided to try to turn those notebooks into a screenplay.
AVC: So how much of your actual family history ended up in the film?
HKE: The setup is different. It’s quite significantly fictionalized. But at least half of the lines of the mother in the film were stuff that my mother actually said. There being a toothbrush ready for when I came home, and a lot of those details, I borrowed from my real experiences.
AVC: The movie focuses very much on those little details. You have long master shots of the family interacting, and then minute details, like the toothbrush or the tempura being cooked. What dictated that style?
HKE: [Takes pen, draws diagram.] So the master shot is the shot of the room with people sitting on either side of the low table. So if this is Ozu [Points to the camera.], this is [Japanese director Mikio] Naruse. Naruse’s always at a bit of an angle. My master shots are Naruse. So there’s four shots, four different angles, they’re all at an angle, they’re never straight on. And the master shot is composed of shots from those four different angles.
One of those, we’d go in for a tight shot. Sometimes it doesn’t make it all the way to angle four, but fundamentally, it’s composed of those shots. And for that room, that was the basic plan. Outside is a little bit different. Basically, it’s like four beats. It’s [Points to cameras.] one, two, three, four. Fairly methodically. I didn’t mess with that rhythm very much.
AVC: The use of the shots is extremely powerful, because particularly the first time you see them eating together, there’s so much going on in each shot. There are three or four different interactions going on at the same time, and it feels like it’s just happening rather than as if it were staged.
HKE: That’s exactly what I was aiming for.
AVC: How do you arrive at that point? Do you spend all day rehearsing one of those shots, and then shoot at the end?
HKE: After the set got built, we blocked it. So it’s really rehearsed. And I shot it on video, so that’s when I came up with the camera angles. And I also then revised the script to time it right.
AVC: How did shooting the rehearsals on video affect the final takes? Because you have these very long shots, the timing within is crucial. You’re editing within the shot rather than between them.
HKE: Mostly I shot it from each angle with the full scene. I didn’t, like, “Okay, let’s get this tiny dialogue, and then let’s get this tiny dialogue.” So I shot from the different angles more or less four times, and then did the rest in the editing room. The reason I did that is because the camera doesn’t really move, and the film really is about—a lot of it is happening in the other room. So in order for this to come to life, this very stable, quiet shot, it’s about working with everything else that’s happening offscreen, or outside the room.
AVC: Maybe this is just a coincidence, but is that because at least in part what’s bringing them together is an absence? It’s the son who isn’t there anymore that’s brought them all together.
HKE: [Long pause.] Tough one. Certainly I wrote the screenplay to reveal an absence. It’s there in the screenplay, and it’s there in the house. Whether it actually influenced that choice of camera angles and rhythm, I don’t know.
AVC: One of the things that’s very touching about the film is that the characters’ conversations are all about their regrets, but the film itself is very much about the life going on within the frame—the food being cooked and the butterflies flying outside. It seems as if there’s life going on, but they don’t notice it because they’re so caught up with things they wish had happened that didn’t. Was that something you wanted to express?
HKE: Because the film is about regret, the day has to be very, very rich in the details that constitute life. And so food is very, very important. So we want regret and death to sometimes just appear out of this very rich—so the opening starts with that very detailed food preparation.
AVC: The central character, the son, works in art restoration, which he refers to with the English word “anti-aging.” Do the people in the film have trouble accepting that they’re getting older and that things have moved into the past?
HKE: Each character has a very different relationship to the 15 years that have passed since the son died. Probably the father and the son are both panicked in different ways, the father about aging, the son about not being a professional as he’s pushing 40. For the mother, she would like for there to be more of a distance between her and what happened 15 years ago. And for the older daughter, it’s gone. She’s totally in the present. It could have happened 100 years ago. Each of them have a completely different relationship to the time passed. So the question was how to reveal that discrepancy of sensed time, felt time, between the characters.
AVC: A lot of people have mentioned Ozu in relationship to this film, but Ozu’s films usually take the perspective of the older generation, where this film is from the son’s perspective. Why did you choose that character as the central figure?
HKE: Because I was the son. At the time that my mother died, I suddenly realized that I was nobody’s son anymore. Now I’m a father, but at that point, I wasn’t anybody’s father. So the movie was written at the point when I was nobody’s son, remembering when I was somebody’s son.
AVC: Do you feel that making movies for a living is somehow not professional?
HKE: You know, my newest film is in the Masters section of the Toronto Film Festival, and I’m like, “Who are you kidding? Masters? That’s [Theodoros] Angelopoulos, that’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien.” I really feel like I just started as a filmmaker, especially because my mother died while I was making Nobody Knows. At least if she could have seen Nobody Knows… I was a little too late for her death in terms of my career, so I didn’t feel like when she died, I was really a fully matured filmmaker.
AVC: Your films After Life and Maborosi both recieved plenty of critical recognition, but Nobody Knows seemed to rise to a new level. Did that film change things for you?
HKE: It was the first time that my satisfaction with the work and the critical acclaim and the box office all came together. That was nice. All my mother wanted to know about was, “Are you putting money away in the bank? Are you making money?” That’s all she cared about. All she wanted to know when I got a prize was how much money did it make me. It was hard for me not to be able to say, “Yeah, I made a lot of money with the movie.”
AVC: Did your parents have other plans for you? What was their reaction when you started making movies?
HKE: My father wanted me to be a doctor. My great-grandfather had been a doctor, but my grandfather and my father, for different reasons, couldn’t. My mother wanted me to be a public-service employee.
AVC: Is that why the father in this movie is a doctor?
HKE: I have a memory of my grandfather holding my hand and saying, “You look like you would be a good doctor.” I hated that.
AVC: You started off in documentaries before making the transition to feature films. Did that influence the way you shot this film, particularly the long, unedited shots?
HKE: Intentionally I really wanted to move away from documentaries, so the way I wrote the screenplay and the way I shot it feels to me very different. The one place where I incorporated some aspect of the documentary approach was in the scene with the watermelon and the kids. The adults’ dialogue is all set, but the children’s movement and dialogue, I decided to play with. But I used that, in a way, to kind of mess with the adult actors’ dialogue. So that feels like sort of a splash of documentary, throwing it into the loop.
AVC: But for the rest, it’s all very worked-out, although it looks like it isn’t.
HKE: The rest of it is worked-out. Very much so.
AVC: This has been a bit of a bone of contention for some people who don’t like the film, so let’s set the record straight. In the scene where the mother believes that her son’s spirit has come into the house as a butterfly, did you actually mean to suggest the son’s spirit had returned, or is it just about her grief?
HKE: It’s an expression of her grief. I think that butterfly’s actually a butterfly. But I’m not opposed to people projecting spirituality onto the butterfly. The Japanese, because so few of them have a faith in God… If anything, there’s a strong tendency to conflate the animal, flora and fauna, with the spiritual. I like that about Japan.
AVC: Your new film Air Doll sounds like a quite a departure for you, in terms of subject matter and of style. What inspired that change?
HKE: Because the whole idea was completely fantastic, I figured that the approach of Nobody Knows and Still Walking wasn’t going to work at all, so I just used a completely different crew, just changed everything. Everything. But probably, to the extent that I have a stamp as a creator, that probably will endure whatever drastic change in approach that I make. The difference is that Still Walking is a novel, but Air Doll is a poem.