Kore-eda Hirokazu has been a darling in the international festival circuit since his debut feature film, Maboroshi no hikari. Maboroshi had a visual style that reflected his work in television documentary production and a thematic focus on death, mourning, and transition that would become an undercurrent in many of the director's subsequent works -- such as After Life, Distance, Nobody Knows, and 2008's critically acclaimed Still Walking (which Kore-eda made in-between halting production on Air Doll to deal with the death of his mother).
In many respects, Kore-eda's latest feature, Air Doll (Kuuki ningyo) is a departure from his previous human dramas. About an inflatable sex doll come to life, the film is his first frankly sexual film to date, and, with a production crew of highly-seasoned professionals in the art cinema circuit, it is not just one of his most visually accomplished films, but also one of the most beautiful films released in 2009, period. While the subject matter might be fresh terrain for the director, many of his preoccupations with the nature of memory and his critiques of Japanese urban social conditions are present and developed in new directions, making Air Doll a unique addition to Kore-eda's expanding and continually fascinating oeuvre.
Kore-eda made a special appearance at the International Film Festival Rotterdam to promote and field questions about his latest work.
Interview with Kore-eda Hirokazu
January 26, 2010
Interview and translation by Bryan Hikari Hartzheim
APA: Air Doll is one of your most visually-striking pieces of work. Did you consciously go into this film with a visual process prepared?
Kore-eda Hirokazu: Until this point, I've always made films that deal with a reality that reflects the color and light of everyday life. This time, the story was a fantasy and also a love story, so I wanted to make sure the colors and lights reflected what Nozomi [the air doll] sees and the space that she occupies -- which is a reality slightly off-kilter from everyday life. That was actually my original thought process going in, and from this mindset, I knew that to realize this visual and art direction, I had to assemble a crew that was a little different from what I'd worked with before.
APA: This was a staff that included cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing and art director Taneda Yohei. How did you approach them?
KH: I asked them very straightforwardly if they'd like to work on the film. I wrote Taneda a letter soliciting his help. As for Mark Lee, I had been fascinated with his work from long before, but I was always impressed at how he could shoot a scene so simply and yet draw out so many emotional responses that were not in any shooting script. This time, I wanted to show the subjectivity of a single woman, and he agreed to do it.
APA: So you had them in mind from the beginning?
KH: I knew Lee actually from when he was working with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and it was when he was making Café Lumiere in Japan that I went to the set that they were shooting at and introduced myself. I told him that I hoped we would have a chance to work together in the future.
As for Taneda, I had never thought about working with him previously, and I'd never met him before. But for this film, I immediately thought, "This would be perfect for Taneda." He has a way of creating lies through his art design, an ability to show you how something that can't be possible in real life can naturally seem to be a part of reality in film. In Kill Bill, of course, you can see this. Taneda can create a world that can't possibly be real and yet feels very real when you're watching it. It's a very strange and mysterious mood that's created, and I thought this came out especially well in the scenes in the apartment.
APA: How was collaboration between the three of you? You're all very strong artistic personalities. Were there ever any control issues?
KH: None of them are stubborn people, so it was never a hostile environment. They're consummate professionals working in service of creating a world for the film, and there were almost never any disagreements. For example, I wanted the apartment to have a telescope, because I thought the guy living with Nozomi had a romantic streak and liked looking at the stars. I told Taneda this, and he painted the whole room a sort of sky blue and hung a solar system decoration from the ceiling. The effect was that when someone enters the room, it's like arriving in some fantastical world. This was all Taneda's idea, and that upper half of the room really had a fantastical quality to it -- so much so that I decided to film those first scenes, where Nozomi is floating, in that room, despite the fact that I had originally wanted to shoot such a scene on a studio set.
|Taneda Yohei reworked the Monisma Cube building in Rotterdam, designing a temporary facade he's called the "Coolsingel Cube," a surreal exhibition space showcasing his work on Air Doll and other films.
APA: Your latest films following Nobody Knows have abandoned the vérité-style of shooting you used in the past. Is this something you want to eventually return to, or do you want to experiment with other styles?
KH: It depends on the project. I don't want to have a single style or approach to a film before I go into it, because that might change how the film turns out. If I come across material that I like and want to make a film out of it, I want to be able to decide on how to make it or shoot it, depending on the material itself.
APA: So there might be a project in the future where you return to this style?
KH: If I find a project that calls for a documentary lens, then I'll use it. There's nothing inherently in that style that makes me want to find a project for it, though.
APA: The way the location of Tsukishima is shot is quite striking.
KH: It's actually an area across the Sumidagawa river, on the opposite side of Tsukishima. Precisely, it's an area called Minato-cho in the Chuo ward. It's not a very well-known area and most people don't know much about it.
When I read the story, I felt that this was a story set in Tokyo. In the original manga, we only see the doll and not much else, but I had a strong impression the author wanted to show that the air doll was a metaphor for a city life of emptiness and loneliness. So from here, I thought about framing the story around disconnected individuals living separately in the city. I first thought of setting the story in a housing apartment complex, since I was raised in a modern kind of public housing complex. Forty, forty-five years ago, there were lots of children in these complexes, but now there are rarely any children around these buildings, and when night falls, only a few lights in the building can be seen scattered about here and there. The residents mostly consist now of single, elderly people. I think this kind of lost community is interesting.
I first wanted to stage the story here, where one man lives with his doll in this closed space. There are other people in his immediate vicinity, though there are no connections between any of them. But we couldn't secure a whole apartment complex, and when we thought of searching for one, one of the staff members showed me a picture he took of this area. There wasn't a single apartment complex, but a large building complex that was incompletely constructed during the burst of the bubble economy. There was a rusty parking lot whose construction was also stopped due to the economic crisis, and this area had also been left undeveloped. This space had a mysterious quality to it, mixing retro, ruins, and the near future. I decided on this area then, and changed the story to reflect individual lives scattered here and there across the town.
APA: When you first read the story, a manga of about 20 pages, what made you think that it could be adapted into a feature length film?
KH: I had confidence after reading that I could expand the story in several directions. In the original manga, the air doll is filled with air by the man she likes and, while walking around the town, she resolves never to fill herself with air on her own again, even if this means she will die. The manga ends on this monologue. The doll is filled with this breath that goes into her, and she decides that she'll stake her life on that breath. I was, very simply, moved by this scene. This doll had accepted in this fleeting moment that she only has one life to live, and it was in this moment, it seemed to me, that she became human. So I really wanted to make the film around this scene, and while the manga ends there, I thought that I could show how she slowly comes to this moment, how she learns how to live by feeling and using the air inside of her. I thought that if I could show this properly, then the movie would be a story about a human, not a doll.
APA: Was the original writer, Goda Yoshiie, involved in any way in the screen adaptation?
KH: His manga is totally different from my film [laughs], so after asking him if I could adapt his basic concept, he told me that I could do whatever I wanted with it after that. I was very thankful for that because I didn't want him to disapprove of the film being radically different from his original story.
APA: You were interrupted while writing the script for the film by the death of your mother, and then you decided to make Still Walking.
KH: In between the two films, I realized what the life of my mother was. There was definitely a big change in me. I found the poem I used in the film when I was waiting, in between her death and the making of Air Doll. From that death, I realized that I needed to deal with the themes in Air Doll, and that I as a filmmaker should definitely make it.
APA: So do you think Air Doll would have been a completely different film had you made it as originally planned several years ago?
KH: Yes, without a doubt.
APA: In what ways can you say the film changed when you returned to production?
KH: Probably the scenes where, upon realizing that she is going to live her one life to the fullest, Nozomi kind of floats around Tokyo, riding boats, taking purikura pictures. These are light and frivolous scenes, but her expressions of pleasure and happiness during those simple moments were important, and I was very satisfied at how they came out in the final version.
APA: You've said in the past how you were inspired by other directors to make certain films, such as Sadao Yamanaka for Hana, or Naruse for Still Walking. Were there any directors or films you were conscious of while making this film?
KH: Regarding the visual style, not in this case. But for the story, I had in mind the classic tales of [Hans Christian] Andersen's Little Mermaid and Pinocchio, even though they aren't films per se. Further, though this isn't part of the story or style either, I was very much conscious that I wanted to shoot the actress like Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, or even Giulietta Masina in Fellini's films. That was the image that I was going after there.
|Doona Bae in Air Doll
APA: Speaking of actresses, nudity in Japanese films today is a rare occurrence among mainstream stars. Were any Japanese actresses even considered for a role with such heavy nudity?
KH: I didn't even think about casting a Japanese actress. Frankly, I don't think a Japanese actress today could have played this part.
APA: Any specific reason for casting Doona Bae?
KH: I was simply a fan of Doona Bae's work in her Korean films like Take Care of My Cat and Barking Dogs Never Bite. I thought she was terrific in these films, and I had wanted to work with her for some time, even if I knew it wouldn't be an easy dream to realize due to language barriers. But for this role, the main character begins with a very basic grasp of the Japanese language, so I thought she could play it, even if it would be a little difficult in the beginning. I asked her to play it pretty early on while we were still writing the script, and she agreed.
APA: Did she surprise you in any way, perhaps developing aspects of Nozomi that you didn't even know were there?
KH: This might be a very practical answer: I had the impression that she was an instinctive or emotional type of actress before I met her. But when we began shooting, while she's very natural, she is a much more of a professional and rational actress than I imagined. By "rational," I mean that she could do the same scenes over and over. As an actress, she has a firm, one might say "correct," grasp of her own body. It's like a sports athlete. She can visualize how she looks or how she's standing, like a picture floating in her mind. She never checked the monitor and or asked how she looked naked, but it was like she could stand back and objectively view her own body in relation to the camera during a shooting. Soccer players might kick the ball in front of them, but the best ones have extra eyes to see where all 22 players are on the field at all times. She also has that type of extra sensitivity. While on set, even the assistant cameramen were amazed at her precision in movement. If she had to hit a spot, she wouldn't be off by more than 3cm at most. They said they've never seen any actress with such body control. That's how professional she is. I can imagine she would have been a great action star in the past, but there really are no actresses like her today.
APA: What is your approach to directing actors? Many of your films have incredible performances.
KH: My approach depends on what I feel is best for the actor. I don't have one way of directing actors, so I meet with the actors before shooting and try to figure out what way of direction will work best for each person. In Nobody Knows, for example, I didn't give Yuya Yagira any script or lines. I just said into his ear, "You should speak into his ear like this," or "You should talk to your mom like this," or "You're angry at her now, so you should speak to her like this." I communicated my directions to him simply by talking, and for him, this was the best way to naturally elicit his feelings of childlike loneliness.
For Hiroshi Abe in Still Walking, on the other hand, I did give a script, but it went well with him for whatever reason. Why did it go so well? [laughs] For one, he usually plays intense, over-the-top, eccentric characters and not the kind of ordinary type in that film. He's very good at acting though, so it was interesting to see how I could control those emotions. In addition, just like all other actors, we went through the very orthodox process of rehearsing and reading through the script, repeating scenes over and over while I could tell him precisely what I was expecting from each scene. From this, I think he was really able to grasp that his character was a passive person who receives others' emotions, rather than emoting himself. I'm always writing differently depending on the part and the actor playing that part. Sometimes it's difficult, but it's usually interesting as well.
APA: There's a disturbing quality to Air Doll, where it's half-fairytale, but half-adult and overtly sexual, and this creates a very strange character in Nozomi. What kind of tone were you aiming for?
KH: Precisely the one you describe. It's a personal fantasy, but the feeling is real. I wanted to make the feelings Nozomi experiences very real. Just because it's a fantasy doesn't mean it should all be fun; it should also comprise sadness, and for her, the heaviness of this grief. The people around her, on the other hand, are diverting their eyes from these feelings, and she is capable of embracing their evasions. Regarding these feelings, I think the experience in the film feels very realistic.
People who are coming into the film expecting a true fantasy film are faced with something a little different since this is basically film for adults, and the protagonist's existence is that of a sex doll. If I made the film too sweet or sentimental, it would have been boring. So I really wanted to push the envelope there. I think that's the feeling you're talking about. If you can get past the idea of a plastic doll coming to life, the feelings you'll experience from the film are extremely real. I think the film oscillates between these two directions.
APA: The sexual aspect does come out very strongly. Was this a theme you had wanted to investigate from before?
KH: No. Well, actually, yes. I had thought about it to some degree, but I didn't want to talk about it so straightforwardly like Oshima Nagisa or Imamura Shohei had done. My world, my personality, is not from the same place. The women in Imamura's films are native and earthy, aren't they? I wouldn't go so far as to call them animalistic, but his women have a distinct female perspective of the world and towards sex. To be honest, our society really doesn't have that kind of perspective anymore. So I wanted to write about sex from a different perspective, where the body is changed through sex. This would be my own way of approaching this theme. I had no desire to paint the raw aspects of sex. But when I read this manga, I thought I could discuss my own ideas of sex and feminity through it in a slightly different form.
APA: It seems you're also commenting on how men and women approach sex in society in general. In Air Doll is this something you feel particular to Japanese culture or to men and women in general?
KH: Hmm. What do you think?
APA: I think many aspects of Japanese urban culture in the film are shown to be distinct from other cultures, but I think the basic sexual themes are pretty universal in the sense that what men and women want from sex...
KH: It's different, right? To want something from somebody without getting close to them is an idea I don't think particular to Japanese people. Or the idea that dealing with other people has become a hassle for many in society. Withdrawing into the company of a doll might be cultural, I suppose. In Japan today, there are more pets than children, and people are having fewer kids and getting married less. They are withdrawing into their pets.
APA: This is something that has recurred in your works. In Nobody Knows, you make a dig at the neighbor who cradles her poodle like a baby.
KH: Yes. People are being drawn more to things than other people. [The robot dog] Aibo is another example of this.
APA: Of all the places where the air doll can work, she ends up at a video store. You're well-versed in film history, so I can assume this wasn't a coincidence.
KH: Well, it was in the manga [laughs]. Of course, I thought it was a fun and interesting idea that a sex doll, which is a representation of sex, would want to work at a video store, which is a representation of the movies, so I left that part in from the original manga. In my version, she arrives there by accident. So the video store itself wasn't as important as the idea that the place or object stands for something else.
APA: We've talked about the similarities between Air Doll and the rest of your films. How do you think you and your films have changed since when you first started your career?
KH: That's a difficult question to answer. I guess there's the fact that I've aged. When I made my first feature, I was 32 years old, and now I'm 47. I'll soon be 50. The biggest difference between now and then is that I've gotten older. And in those years, my thinking has changed a lot. I don't know if that means I've grown in any way. When I first started, both my mother and my father were alive, and I was a son, but now they're both gone and I'm nobody's child. Now I have a child of my own, and I'm a father. I've lost a father but become a father in turn. I think that change right there is the biggest change in my approach to making films. Of course, my filmmaking approach has changed after each and every film as well, but that change I described is the change that I feel the strongest. I want to remain the kind of director who reflects these life changes in my films.
Click here for APA's review of Air Doll.
Kore-eda Hirokazu's complete feature filmography:
After Life (1999)
Nobody Knows (2004)
Still Walking (2008)
Seemingly Fine: Cocco's Neverending Journey (Daijoubu de aruyouni: Cocco owaranai tabi, 2008)
Air Doll (2009)
Kore-eda's television documentary filmography:
Lessons from a Calf (1991)
Kougai wa dokoni itta (Where did environmental pollution go…, 1992)
Nihonjin ni naritakatta (I Wanted to be a Japanese, 1992)
Shinshouskecchi: Sorezoreno Miyazawa Kenji (Mental Sketch: The Various Miyazawa Kenji)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang (1993)
August Without Him (1994)
Kioku ga ishinawareta toki (When Memory was Lost, 1996)
Shiriizu kembou – #9: Senso Houki “Boukyaku” (The Constitution Series - #9: The Renunciation of War, “Oblivion”, 2006)
Inochi no hibiki (Tremor of Life, 1999)
Arukuyouna hayasade (Like the Speed of Walking, 2002)
Anotoki datta kamo shiranai (Maybe it was Then, 2008)