Documentary as Structure: However... and August Without Him
In his landmark scriptwriting book Adventures in the Screentrade, William Goldman (who penned such Hollywood successes as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the Presidents Men) stated that screenplays, and by extension films, are defined by their 'structure'. He elaborates:
'Yes, nifty dialog helps one hell of a lot; sure, it's nice if you can bring your characters to life. But you can have terrific characters spouting just swell talk to each other, and if the structure is unsound, forget it.' (1985: 195)
Of course, Goldman is discussing mainstream Hollywood films, but such a sentiment is highly relevant to Kore-eda's early documentary film work, as he showed a great awareness of using narrative structure to order the factual proceedings, in some cases showing great influence from fictional modes of expression.
The 48 minute television documentary However..., was Kore-eda's first film made in collaboration with the independent production company TV Man Union, and was screened on Fuji TV as part of their late night NONFIX factual strand. While the film's central focus is that of Japanese social policy and welfare, and issues surrounding the government's response to the Minimata disease, the narrative structure introduces many strategies and techniques more familiar to fictional cinema. After researching Japan's welfare system, Kore-eda picked two people to be the film's protagonists, Harashima Nobuko and Yamanouchi Toyonori. Both had committed suicide, the former after having her benefit payments revoked, and the latter amidst controversy around his position as the Planning and Co-ordination Chief at the Environment Agency.
With this two-pronged narrative structure in place, Kore-eda is able to create a documentary narrative that has tension, turning the general investigation of the film into 'a detective story' (Erickson, 2009). This is communicated in the film's over-arching style, which is a mixture of still shots, interviews and stock footage from television news archives. Likewise, a lack of music, and the use of a measured, dry voice-over, gives the film a veneer of composure, moving away from the potentially sensationalist content, and instead focusing on the tragedy of its two stories. At the start, this effect is achieved by posing a number of questions, paired with solemn images of Yamanouchi: 'Why did an elite bureaucrat, slated for promotion, choose death? Was there a suicide note?'. The suicide note is used as a key object in the narrative, and is just one of a number of such objects that are flagged up as clues, or artefacts of meaning, in the two life stories.
Before her death, Harashima recorded a testimony, an indictment of the welfare system that revealed the trials she had to endure. Even though the tape is not played until halfway through the film (with corresponding reaction shots from welfare officials), it is held up as a narrative hook, a part of the mystery, with the voice-over asking, 'what did she say in the recording?', inviting the audience to speculate, and create an emotional connection with the character.
While However... sources most of its content through interviews, notably with Yamanouchi's grieving widow, the film displays more interest in these two protagonists, neither of whom, being deceased, can be interviewed. Instead, they are given voices through the suicide note, the testimony or, crucially, Yamanouchi's poetry. At the beginning, there is a still shot of a pile of notebooks and manuscripts, placed like the testimony tape on a black background, that seems out of place next to the news footage and clippings. The voice-over reveals 'he wrote poetry, novels, and articles on welfare', before stating the intention 'I'd like to follow his 53 year life through his writings'. Indeed, when the film reaches its conclusion without finding a distinct reason for the Chief's suicide, it turns towards the interior world of his own poetry, in particular the poem 'However', which provides a symbolic grain of philosophical truth that reveals a man facing up to his own lack of authority, and recognises a less idealistic, and more pragmatic era in Japanese society.
Similar strategies are at play in August Without Him, although the overall style of the film is very different. August Without Him is a character-driven documentary about Hirata Yutaka, the first openly gay AIDS sufferer in Japan. Filmed over a series of months, the footage of Hirata is less about his public life as an outspoken figure on the lecture circuit, and more of an intimate piece showing his personal descent into illness and death. Like its predecessor, much attention is given to his interior life as a writer, displayed in his poems, articles and a book published during his decline. However, as opposed to being a starkly observational film, Kore-eda instead exposes the machinations of filmmaking, as it is just as concerned with the director's own developing relationship with his subject. This is stylistically presented through long, handheld sequences where Kore-eda would visit Hirata (sometimes without the crew), in which the subject would often address the director freely, thereby bringing the filmmaker into the cast of the drama.
Such subjectivity is also foregrounded in a more overt way in the film's narrative structure. August Without Him features a frame narrative, in which Kore-eda, in August 1994, reminisces about his relationship with Hirata, who had died two months previously. This progresses in a chapter-like structure, ever returning to the narration in August:
'August 1st 1994. Today I found some baby chrysanthemums in a flower shop. He always loved baby chrysanthemums ... August 6th 1994. Today I visited the office of AIDS Support Chiba, the organisation that he belonged to, the telephone that they were using was a special phone, with the number 5 marked for him to be able to dial, even after he had lost his sight. He always loved talking on the phone.'
This voice over has more in common with a diary than the relatively objective, dry narration in However..., although this structure is used to similar effects. The use of flashbacks creates a compelling way to order the events, and recalls films such as Citizen Kane, in how it ties together two lines of chronology separated by death. In fact, the use of motifs that house emotion and jog the narrator's memory recalls Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), where the taste of Madeleine cake can signify a complex web of recollection. Indeed, while this is an odd way to structure such intimate footage, it does provide a certain distance and subjectivity that helps to keep the film from seeming exploitative, or nakedly morbid.
Shifting away from the objective narration of However..., Kore-eda here touches on a style that comes to define both August Without Him and his subsequent documentary, Without Memory, where the filmmaker is a distinct player in the narrative, and the film itself is just as much about the process of capturing reality, as it is about the topic at hand. This would help to explain the title, August Without Him, as a reflection of the filmmaker's own time spent mourning over a particularly moving subject. Even though Hirata's story ends with a quote from his writing, speaking of regretting not visiting his father more, the film fades out to Kore-eda's final comments, about his own grief, concluding that, 'along with such small regrets, August passes, without him'. Speaking about this development, Kore-eda said:
'I think the idea that you can eliminate your subjectivity and so achieve a kind of objectivity or impartiality is a myth, a fantasy. Though there are still some people who believe it, I suppose. They are quite happy to say that if you eliminate your subjectivity you can portray something objectively. Well, I think it's pretty much impossible.' (Gerow and Tanaka, 1999)
Kore-eda here describes a documentary filmmaker's equivalent of Observer's Paradox, that adds an edge of formal commentary to his work. Both However... and August Without Him are documentary films that strive to find personal stories in controversial Japanese social issues, using the subjects own expression (a testimony, a poem, a book) as a key to their interior life. However, the latter film realises that such insight, without acknowledging the hand of the filmmaker, is contrived. Therefore, in August Without Him, the director calls on narrative strategies more common in fictional works, not in order to shape a compelling narrative (as with However...), but in order to present the reality of the events more clearly.