By Cathleen Rountree
Upon first meeting one of the great humanist filmmakers, Hirokazu Kore-eda, last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was struck by his modesty and peacefulness, characteristics embodied also by Soza (Junichi Okada), the reluctant swordsman/hero in Kore-eda’s most recent film Hana, screening this week at SFIFF. An aficionada of his four previous films: Maborosi (1996), After Life (1999), Distance (2002), and Nobody Knows (2004), I was ecstatic at the opportunity to meet and speak with this foremost world cinema director, who, as far as I’m concerned, should be considered one of Japan’s Living Treasures.
Although I’ve always been partial to Japanese films (naturally, the masters: Kurosawa, Ichikawa, Mizoguchi, and Kobayashi––but especially Imamura and Oshima), they’ve assumed a deeper resonance since I lived in Kyoto (where Hana was entirely filmed) for two months in the early 1990s, studying the Traditional Japanese Arts.
After Life, in particular, had a profound affect on me. Contemplating the film, I wrote:
The literal translation of the Japanese title Wandafuru raifu is “Wonderful Life” (a la Frank Capra), which fits its universal theme, its empathy for nostalgia, and its homage to cinema. The film opens up as 22 recently deceased people arrive in what turns out to be a limbo way-station. But this is not the Purgatorio of Dante. The staff or counselors in this abandoned school house-cum-film studio, has only beneficent intentions: to help each individual select, in three days, the “most meaningful or precious memory” from their lives. For most of them this proves to be a decidedly fettered task. One young man flat out refuses to make a choice, another prefers his dreams to any actual experience, a teenager at first chooses her trip to Disneyland, while a gregarious man focuses on his sexual memories. The reinterpreted and filmed memory becomes more important than the original memory. After Life seems as much about filmmaking itself as it is about the concept of heaven. Movies do, after all, help shape our memories and serve us as faithfully as his remembered madeleines served Proust. The refreshing absence of any religious implication serves to keep the focus on the characters and their memories and the stark lack of music also prevents sentimentalizing the process. Kore-eda offers some inventive ideas and themes on the conundrum: What happens after we die?
Only a month before meeting Kore-eda, this eternal philosophical and spiritual question turned, for me, from compelling to urgent, when my dearest friend of 20 years died. And, even though I was at a world-class film festival, surrounded by fascinating people and captivating films, I felt strangely removed, at a distance from “normal” life, and frequently overcome by emotion.
What would this twenty-minute encounter with one of my favorite directors render? (After all, during 20-plus years of interviewing world-renowned figures, I’d been (more than) occasionally, disappointed.) Was I carrying any obstreperous projections into our interview? Was I guilty of taking the metaphor, “the film director is God,” a bit too literally? What was I expecting, an oracle? I was about to find out.
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