The Problem of Remembering in Without Memory and After Life
With August Without Him, Kore-eda seemed to acknowledge that the objective filmmaking of However... was inherently flawed, and exposed his own voice as a filmmaker in order to present a transparent form of documentary. His subsequent film, Without Memory, and second feature film, After Life, would further develop the director's discourse of fiction and reality, with both assessing the relationship between cinema, memory and truth.
Without Memory takes as its subject Sekine Hiroshi, a care worker who, after a botched operation, loses his episodic memory, effectively rendering him incapable to distinctly recollect events since 1992. Once again using intimate footage that had been collecting over an extended shoot, Kore-eda uses close-ups, interviews, and observational footage in order to present the man's life in a moving, tender light. However, what is quite apparent, after the overt storytelling structures of the two previous documentaries, is that Without Memory has a less distinct trajectory to its narration, progressing through footage in a chronological order, from April 1994 to July 1996. Crucially, however, the subject's lack of memory brings new resonance to many of Kore-eda's motifs and strategies, especially that regarding subjectivity and reality, as is related in the short, pre-title card narration: 'As we live our lives, memories of experiences painful and pleasant accumulate in our brains. These memories are fundamental to our individual identities'.
While memory - namely Kore-eda's - was used as a foundation for August Without Him, Sekine's illness poses a challenge to that film's assertion of reality being contained in a recollected event caught on film. Much of Without Memory is dedicated to Sekine's relationship to the physical objects and emotionally-charged personal possessions that, given his condition, contain no meaning for him. There are cutaways to household images, photographs, and ornaments crafted by the children, implicitly evoking an amassed personal history from which Sekine is divorced. Objects of record, such as his wife's diary, a scrapbook put together by his son, or the questionnaire that Sekine himself fills out every day, take on an air of poignancy; they are not, in this case, insightful artefacts. To adapt to Sekine's condition, Kore-eda suggests that the family borrow a video camera, and document their own life for the father's further reference, to act as a replacement for his lost memory. In doing this, the director unearths two developments, that tie in well to his key themes.
One strengthens the director's intention of creating a transparent documentary film, with Sekine slowly, over time, growing to recognise the faces and names of the crew. At an integral point in the film, Sekine turns the borrowed camera on the filmmakers; this is accompanied by an immediate cut to Sekine's point of view, effectively taking the viewer behind the scenes. It is surprising, even with Kore-eda's self-reflexive narration, to see the workings of the film so openly, and to show the intimate space of the family's household in a different light, cluttered with apparatus and crew members. The second, more affecting development occurs when Sekine views the video recordings, and he does not recognise himself or the situation. This is communicated in a particularly touching sequence, where the man is filmed watching scenes of his family on television, where he says, out of shot:
'When I see myself in pictures or in videos, I just can't recognise that person as me. I have no impression of having been there. It's like I'm watching a film made about someone other than me. I think 'maybe someone who looks like me is playing at being me' ... It doesn't feel real.'
Sekine's words seem to be an indictment of filming reality, and presenting it as truth, suggesting that without emotional connection, reference or resonance, the medium of cinema carries an innate fictional element. This is tied to Sekine's sense of identity, that he cannot recognise himself due to his lack of memory, but the implications of such an insight, that the marriage of the fictional properties of cinema and memory can create a sort of personal, pure truth, is carried over by Kore-eda to his next project, After Life. Set in a purgatory-like state of limbo, in which the deceased spirits are asked to choose a cherished event from their lives to accompany them in death, the film makes no narrative claims to reality, yet achieves a documentary-like emotional truth.
This is first seen in a sequence towards the beginning of the film, where a succession of that week's new spirits are interviewed about their lives and their potential memories. In preparation for the film, and this section in particular, Kore-eda conducted interviews with reportedly 500 ordinary people, out of whom were picked ten non-actors that appear in the film, relating their own life experiences (Rayns, 1999a). The scenes are filmed from an angle, mimicing the off-centre gaze of a documentary, and progresses along more anecdotal lines, rather than fleshing out a distinct narrative. Instead, it becomes an aspect of reality inserted within a fictional story, with the non-actors sharing screen space with professionals that are reciting scripted sequences. Such an approach calls attention to the power of the image, and how the audience responds to it: the use of characters recollecting events in their lives causes the viewer to do the same, and Kore-eda takes this engrossed state of reflection, and develops a hierarchy of image as the film progresses, each corresponding to a distinct kind of truth.
A twist comes when an old man (Taketoshi Naito) is aided in his selection process by being provided with video tapes of his life. These tapes are filmed with a grainy, but static camera, and are introduced with the statement that they 'won't match your memories exactly', suggesting the incongruity between memory and objective reality (and also a potential comment on the contrived nature of objective documentary). However, a second development shifts the focus towards cinema as a medium. After choosing their memory, the characters are invited to supervise a filming of that memory, using an aesthetic that places evocation over exact recreation. These micro-productions are created on a small budget, and are filmed on a dingy soundstage somewhere on the complex. One particular memory sequence sees a man wishing to remember piloting a Cessna, which is recreated with cotton clouds, painted backdrops, and a hastily modified plane of a different model. Nevertheless, the man is convinced, saying 'it's just like I'm really flying' as he stares out of the cockpit's window. While Kore-eda is obviously playing with the nature of the memory here, there is also a distinct appraisal of the poignancy of the fictionalised, evocative image. It is not objectively real, but it stirs an emotional truth within the subject. Likewise, a lingering shot later in the film, as the spirits are treated to a special screening of each memory, acts as a mirror to our own experience as viewers, finding resonance with the characters projected before our eyes, despite their fictional context.
While these films both feel along the edges of what film can portray as truth, seen through the prism of memory and fiction, they also ask direct questions of the viewers, as to what they believe to be credible, as to whether there is an objective reality and, if there is, whether it would be something useful or desirable. Earlier, Kore-eda was quoted speaking against false objectivity in documentary filmmaking, but it seems that an awareness of subjectivity can also enrich fictional film. Film style can be divorced from its content, as the hand-held camerawork and squalid location of After Life creates a wholly naturalist aesthetic. However, its content can strive for an emotional truth within its fiction, providing a representation of real life that exists beyond plot constraints. Following After Life, Kore-eda would pursue this naturalistic, fictional cinema, with Still Walking achieving an approach to character that can be traced to Without Memory's closing statement, that Sekine's identity is not lost, but instead resides 'in the people who know him'.
Next, a chapter on Still Walking, titled 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'. Thank you for reading.