Regrets & Memories: A Conversation With Hirokazu Kore-Eda

Photo by SF360 (Pamela Gentile).

In Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, a son and daughter return to the family home where their parents have lived for decades, bringing their own young families along with them.  They have gathered to commemorate the tragic death of the eldest son, who drowned in an accident 15 years earlier.  Although the roomy house is as comforting and unchanging as the mother's homemade feast, everyone in the family has changed subtly.  This is the story of a dysfunctional family—full of resentments and secrets—which unfolds over the course of a single summer's day.  With a master’s deft touch and psychological delicacy, Kore-Eda explores the hidden tensions that bind family life.

My thanks to the San Francisco Film Society and Larsen Associates for offering the chance to sit down with Kore-Eda to discuss Still Walking.  I made him laugh because I was wearing my favorite Godzilla t-shirt, he asked me where I found it, and I told him in Japantown, where it caught my eye because I felt that Godzilla and I had been separated at birth.  "The Films of Hirokazu Kore-Eda" is now playing at BAMcinématek through September 1.  Still Walking opens theatrically in New York on August 28, and on September 4 in San Francisco.

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MICHAEL GUILLÉN: I presume that Still Walking is the English translation of the Japanese title Aruitemo aruitemo? But I wasn’t sure if “still” walking meant that someone is still alive and walking around or if it’s a reference to meditative walking?

HIROKAZU KORE-EDA: The English title was put on the film by the translator of the subtitles and what she meant is that one continues walking.

GUILLÉN: There’s a saying that regrets are illuminations come too late. Still Walking in particular seems illuminated with regrets the characters gradually come to understand.

KORE-EDA: Yes, you’re exactly right. It’s been nearly four years since my mother died and—during these four years—my daughter has been born, so I’ve become a father and my wife has become a mother. I’ve come to realize even more the themes that are in the film. I realize what my mother must have gone through. There are so many moments when I think, “If only I had known this while my mother was still alive….” I’m now faced with those kinds of feelings.

GUILLÉN: Clearly, one of the values of Still Walking, along with its apparent beauty, is that—as soon as I finished watching it—I phoned my mother to tell her, “I’ve just seen this beautiful film and parts of it reminded me of you.”

KORE-EDA: Many Japanese audience members have likewise told me that they phoned their mothers right away after they left the theater.

GUILLÉN: Speaking of the mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) in Still Walking, I found her portrait amazingly nuanced. I was struck by her being the sovereign of the household—there was a little joke the children made about it being “grandmother’s house and not grandfather’s house”—and what came across was a play between her maintaining tradition while, at the same time, being innovative—in the way she arranged the flowers and how her recipes varied from traditional recipes. Did your own mother exercise this play between tradition and innovation?

KORE-EDA: Certainly my mother was like Toshiko. In the film, however, the fact that she had not learned a certain style of flower arranging, or that she was cooking corn tempura—which is not haute cuisine; it’s something anybody could make—was not commendable. When this family is all gathered together, there’s a sense of “why is she making that?” The father Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) sees his wife as not being very well brought up because she was self-taught, and didn’t know how to correctly arrange flowers or serve more of an elaborate dish than corn tempura. This was not suited for a doctor’s wife. A doctor’s wife should have slightly higher standards, that sort of thing. But Toshiko understands that—though her husband says he likes classical music—he actually prefers Japanese popular songs, which he sings under his breath.

GUILLÉN: And despite his criticisms, he’s the one who rushed out to eat the corn tempura, because he liked it! Throughout your films you’ve been consistent in your thematic preoccupations, and yet each film is delightfully different in tone, temper and texture—Afterlife was philosophical; Nobody Knows was sad; Hana was jubilant and communal. Still Walking, by contrast, has such a light touch. Can you speak to that touch?

KORE-EDA: [Laughs.] It comes naturally; but, there must be a reason. Still Walking starts from my mother’s death. That’s what inspired me to make this movie, along with all the things I couldn’t do or didn’t do while she was alive and the regrets that I have about that. I didn’t want the feelings of the son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) towards his mother to be depicted in a sentimental way. I needed to keep it dry, light as you say, with a certain amount of levity, so we could laugh about it. I felt I would fail if I didn’t do it that way, if I made it too sentimental and too wet.

GUILLÉN: Yes, in its favor, your film eschews melodramatics. Another image that came to mind watching Still Walking was that of the pearl of great value, in the sense that the quirks that each family member had—which proved irritating to each other—were like the irritating granules of sand in the oyster that produces pearls. In the case of the family, these irritating quirks eventually produced pearls of loving memory.

KORE-EDA: Very interesting!

GUILLÉN: Along with the dryness you were aiming to capture, indispensible to that task was the music you chose for the film. The music in Still Walking was contemporary by contrast to the period music you used in Hana. How did you choose the music, especially the main leitmotif, and who was the musician who scored it for you?

KORE-EDA: The music is by a guitar duo named Gonchichi. They did the music for Nobody Knows as well. There were two sections in the film where the music was put in specifically to expand the feelings of the main characters; but, in other sections, what I was trying to do was to have the tensions build up within the house and then—when they went outside—there was some relief from the tension and that’s when I would put in the music. I didn’t want complex music and I asked Gonchichi to come up with music that would fit with the feeling of being outside in the environment. Maybe that worked well?

GUILLÉN: It worked very well. Back to the mother, there was a subtextual theme about her criticism of gambling and yet it appeared that she had a little gambling habit on the side? She was hooked on pachinko?

KORE-EDA: They don’t have pachinko here, do they?

GUILLÉN: Not that I’m aware of. I hadn’t heard of it before your film.

KORE-EDA: Pachinko is like a vertical pinball machine. It has a ball bearing and you flip a lever and the ball bearing goes around and around and—if it goes into the right hole—you get more pachinko balls. It’s a very popular game in Japan. Pachinko halls are everywhere. When you win all these pachinko balls, you can trade them in for prizes or go around the corner and trade them in for money, even though it’s not really legal to get money for them. These pachinko halls usually open at 11 in the morning and sometimes—when they have a brand new machine—lines will start forming at 10. People will rush in to try to find the new machine and will try to get as many balls as they can. They will play for hours.

In reality, my father worked for a pachinko parlor shortly after the war adjusting the angles of the pins in the pachinko machines. My father loved gambling. He really loved pachinko and he loved horse racing, bicycle racing, and boat racing. He would take his salary and go gambling and lose all his money so he’d have none to bring home. My mother hated gambling all throughout her life and—if the television was on and it turned into a horse race—she would turn it off. She hated it that much.

That episode in the film was based on my wife’s father, who’s a doctor. His wife, my mother-in-law, was a teacher. These are highly respected occupations in Japan; but, for a while, my mother-in-law got addicted to pachinko. She would go to do her shopping and surreptiously spend time in the pachinko parlor. One time she put her bag on the floor beside her chair while she was playing pachinko and one of the balls fell into her bag without her knowing it. When she came home and was putting away her groceries, the pachinko ball fell out, which her husband noticed. He scolded her. He said, “You’re the wife of a doctor! What will people think when they see you in a shady place like that?” [Laughs.] So I put that episode in the film.

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