INTERVIEW: Hirokazu Kore-Eda Remembers "Afterlife"
by Maya Churi
If you could only take one memory with you for the rest of eternity,
which would you choose? Posed with this question, Hirokazu Kore-Eda
("Maborosi") documents the answers in his new film, "Afterlife." Part
scripted, part documentary, the film brings up questions of reality and
memory, forcing the audience to contemplate the question themselves.
A meditative cross between "Defending Your Life" and "A Christmas
Carol," the film follows a group of characters, all recently deceased,
who are taken on a journey through their past by a group of social
workers. Limbo is almost like an old school or government building;
nameless, except for a vague circular insignia. Once a memory is
chosen, the workers re-create the event in a soundstage, complete with
props, lights and costumes. The social workers turn into filmmakers,
recreating the memory into a short film complete with cast, crew and
set. Afterwards, the dead file into a screening room, watch the films,
and quietly disappear, slipping silently into their perfect dream. This
description however gives only a hint of insight into the complexities
and depth of "Afterlife," a hilarious and moving account of moving on.
indieWIRE sat down with Kore-Eda and his translator Linda Hoaglund
during the 1999 Sundance Film Festival to talk about the festival,
Japanese television and the release of "Afterlife." The film opens
today at New York City's Film Forum.
indieWIRE: What do you think of your first Sundance?
Hirokazu Kore-Eda: I approached Sundance with a certain amount of trepidation.
Many Asian filmmakers who have come here have not had the best
experience, because most of the focus is on American independent
cinema. But the first screening was sold out. My one goal was
accomplished at the filmmakers brunch because I got to meet Robert
Redford. The other goal, of course is promoting my own film here, but
in addition I also wanted to meet some of the directors in the
independent film community. One nice thing that happened was that
Toyomichi Kurita, the DP who shot Robert Altman's latest movie, loved
iW: This is my second time seeing "Afterlife" and this time I took a
friend and he thought it was hysterical...
Kore-Eda: I am so happy when people laugh at it. Frankly, I was dreading
coming here because I understated the bad reputation that Sundance has
in Asia. You say, "I'm going to Sundance" and everyone goes, "oh yeah,
iW: I'm interested to know if there is a kind of Hollywood/Independent
film type of hierarchy in Japan?
Kore-Eda: Up until the early '90s there was a hierarchy like that where
the three big studios made their movies and owned all the theaters. They
had a complete monopoly but now it's really failing, partly because the
three studios have never cultivated good in-house directors. All the
good films were being made by the independents. The Japanese equivalent
of a summer blockbuster is a New Years Day movie, and two of the big
studios were fighting over one independent film. One ended up getting it
and it's being distributed nationwide in 200 theaters. But it's made by
a completely independent company that was savvy and knew that the
studios were falling apart. Now the power of filmmaking is shifting.
iW: Do American independents get distributed in Japan?
Kore-Eda: Tokyo is wonderful for distribution of international films, a
lot of Iranian films, Taiwanese films. But most of the art films are
from Europe and Asia. One or two of John Sayles' films have been
distributed. It's still very difficult, it's moving slowly. One
distributor is doing a whole Cassavettes retrospective but that's not
current independent. One woman who runs the Sundance equivalent of a
film festival in Japan focused on young, eight millimeter, short films.
Her take on why American independents don't make it in Japan is because
she thinks a lot of Japanese audiences like to go see beautiful movies
and tend to rely a lot on visual information that comes from the screen.
Her belief is that a lot of American independents are really about
language and the script and since there's a language barrier and there's
not enough information coming from the screen it's a harder sell in
iW: Who is distributing "Afterlife" in Japan?
Kore-Eda: We are doing it ourselves. We started designing the posters
when we were making the film and starting contacting the theaters
themselves and it's actually slated to open in Tokyo, in a theater like
the Angelika of New York. At the moment "The Big Lebowski" has parked
itself there, so the release got pushed back. But it's the ideal place
with a loyal audience.
iW: "The Big Lebowski" is popular in Japan?
Kore-Eda: "Reservoir Dogs, " "Trainspotting," "Underground" and "The Big
Lebowski" -- all those movies.
iW: Speaking of Japanese audiences, I saw this article about a very
popular television show in Japan about a guy who locked himself in his
apartment until he received some kind of final big prize. The longer he
stays the more prizes he wins, though sometimes he wins only enough food
for the next few days. Have you seen this show?
Kore-Eda: I just wrote a piece in a Japanese magazine comparing this
show to "The Truman Show." It's a manifestation of how sick Japanese
television is, but it's super smart. It's part of an on-going series
called "Electronic Boy." The show has different segments with the
Michael Moore, "Roger and Me" approach. It's "Roger and Me" without a
iW: A lot of the clips that we see of Japanese television always seems
so humiliating. I saw one about a man who would go to a public space
and scream in someone's ear and then the camera would zoom in really
quickly to get their reaction.
Kore-Eda: In the eighties there was a huge shift in the humor of
Japanese television. Up until the then the humor was garnered by people
who said humorous things, but in the '80s it was garnered by people who
were being laughed at, while the audience watches and watches. I watch
"Electronic Boy" faithfully every week not because I like the show but
because I'm interested in where the smartest T.V. producers and
directors are going, what direction they are headed in.
iW: So does he actually leave the apartment?
Kore-Eda: They keep changing it because they can't risk the possibility
of exposure. While shooting they actually have to film in a different
apartments each week because there is a mass of people trying to track
iW: How long are the shows?
Kore-Eda: 7 or 8 minutes. Because of the popularity of that segment they
published a book of his diaries which says what day a T.V. was delivered
or what day canned goods were delivered. It sold 300,000 copies!
iW: It seems a lot like something you would find on the Internet or
Kore-Eda: There is another very popular show that is horrifying in terms
of it's violation of privacy. There are two guys who are MEV-like disk
jockeys and what happens is: real people who think their girlfriend is
cheating on them call up these guys and they go with a camera into her
apartment, open the door while she's there and start going through her
stuff and finding proof. When they've got proof then they pretend that
they're calling up the other guy that she's sleeping with until she
confesses. Privacy is not really a concept in Japan. There is no
concept that privacy is a protected right so people can get away with
iW: What's next, is there another project coming up?
Kore-Eda: Yes, there are several proposals but first we need to work on
making "Afterlife" a success in Japan, recoup the money and then move on
to other projects. Because there is a recession in Japan, it's hard to
find investors so you want to make sure you recoup your money first.