Directors, it’s often said, keep making the same movie over and over, though the sameness is more evident with some than others. Akira Kurosawa was among the most eclectic directors of his generation, filming everything from Shakespearean drama (“Throne of Blood”) to popcorn entertainment (“The Hidden Fortress”), but he kept returning to the problem of being a hero in an unheroic world.
Hirokazu Kore-eda, who made acclaimed documentaries before his feature debut with “Maborosi (Maboroshi no Hikari)” in 1995, has placed memory, in both its lighter and darker manifestations, at the center of his work. In “Maborosi” a young woman loses her husband to an inexplicable suicide — and needs long months and years to work through her grief and guilt. In his second film, “After Life (Wonderful Life)” (1999), the newly dead in Limbo select their most precious memory to take with them into eternity.
In his newest film, “Distance,” the theme of remembrance takes a topical cast, as four people whose loved ones were members of a murderous cult — and died at the hands of their fellow cultists — gather on the anniversary of their deaths. The obvious parallel is the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which released poison gas on the Tokyo subway system in a mad plot to unleash Armageddon. Kore-eda’s approach, however, is anything but sensationalist. In a way by now familiar, he uses documentary techniques to create an illusion of immediacy, while exploring how memory illuminates the past and shapes the present.
Like the masters he admires — Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, Hou Hsiao-hsien — Kore-eda rejects the conventional devices of cinematic storytelling: There is no voice-over to explain the plot, no music to cue the emotions. One danger of such an approach is over-intellectualization: a film that is all theorizing head, no feeling heart. Another is self-indulgence: In making his personal statement, however sincere, the director shuts out the audience.
Kore-eda has been accused of both sins, unfairly, I think. He is a filmmaker of extraordinary talent, intelligence and integrity, who is not playing head games so much as stripping his story to its essence and getting at its emotional truth. And being the good documentarian, he wants to show, not tell; to be the fly on the wall, not the performer in the spotlight.
“Distance” starts slowly, with a narrative approach that resembles a game of go in its diffuseness. Also, it assumes an understanding of its topical reference that, in the case of non-Japanese, may not be there. Finally, in places it becomes too much like a shot-in-real-time documentary, with the camera recording chitchat and soulful staring into space, to little noticeable effect. Kore-eda evidently let his actors improvise much of their dialogue, thus the flavor of life as it is lived, including its banality.
Nonetheless, as revelation follows revelation, of both the past and the present, we come to understand the characters with a directness seldom possible in films. Most of all, we come to see, with a chilling clarity, their isolation. Despite the commonality of their experience and the links they form, they are essentially alone with their memories, mirrors that reflect only a personal reality.
The four survivors — a sensitive teacher (Yui Natsukawa), gruff salaryman (Susumu Terajima), punkish freeter (freelancer) (Yusuke Iseya) and soulful student type (Arata) — drive together to a remote lake where their loved ones once lived in a cult cabin. There they encounter a shy, soft-spoken former cultist (Tadanobu Asano), who narrowly escaped the holocaust that consumed his comrades.
When, in an improbable twist, they find themselves stranded in the wilderness, they are forced to spend the night in the cabin, now abandoned for three years, but still haunted by the ghosts of their respective pasts. With the former cultist serving as an unwilling catalyst, they begin to confront those ghosts.
Some of the revelations are what we expect from movies of this type, such as that the student is not quite what he seems. But mostly the insights are of the inner variety, as the protagonists flash back to scenes from the past, including brutal confrontations and wrenching separations. They are, we see, trying to answer the one unanswerable question: Why? In doing so, they find the kind of imperfect accommodation that is called, tritely, “closure.” Also, in a way that is very Japanese, they come to a kind of mutual understanding that is not the same as closeness. At the end, they go, as they must, their separate ways.
All this plays out much the way it would in real life — little feels staged or strained. By the final cut I felt as though I was on the train home with this odd quintet, alone with memories of my own.