Directors who have been on the PR circuit long enough often have their answers ready before the interviewer’s questions are halfway out of his mouth. Not Hirokazu Kore-eda. Despite the dozens of interviews he’s given since “Nobody Knows (Daremo Shiranai)” screened in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he still thinks his answers through, which can be disconcerting for an interviewer confronted with silence instead of the hoped-for torrent of words. But Kore-eda, who began his career filming award-winning documentaries for the TV Man Union production company, speaks with directness, precision and flashes of humor that make the waits worthwhile.
How would you say the Japanese audience reaction to “Nobody Knows” differs from the reaction at Cannes? Here people are obviously more aware of the situation the children face.
There’s no fundamental difference. The Japanese audience has really responded to the film well, but they tend to connect it with the real incident [on which it’s based], while foreign audiences are more inclined to see it strictly as a work of art.
When you wrote the script 15 years ago, the situation it depicted was rare, but in the world now it certainly isn’t. When I saw “Daremo Shiranai” I was reminded of “City of God,” the Brazilian film about street children. Somehow you got the same look in the faces of the children — that look of poverty, of abandonment.
I wasn’t consciously trying for that. When I explained the story to the children I didn’t stress how miserable their situation was or that their mother would never return. For the younger two children especially, I just talked about the scene at hand. I wanted them to concentrate from moment to moment. I didn’t want them to emphasize the tragedy of their situation.
The shoot was extremely long — nearly a year — which gave you plenty of time to create the sort of environment you wanted.
Yes, I tried to build a relationship of trust between myself and the children and among the children themselves.
So that you wouldn’t have to give them detailed explanations?
So that they could understand what I wanted, so that they could rely on me. It was really important to build a relationship that would enable them to be natural, to look natural.
When you were working with the actors on their characters, did you just use your imagination or did you have images in mind of children you had seen in films or documentaries?
I didn’t use much in the way of reference. In any case, I think the situation of the children [in “Nobody Knows”] is somewhat different from what you find in “City of God.” Their environment was Tokyo, where there’s a lot of everything. If you make good use of the convenience stores here, you can eat.
When we were shooting on the streets I wondered what would happen. But even though the kids were wearing dirty, ragged clothes, nobody paid much attention to them. Nobody asked them what was wrong. This with the camera far back, out of sight. [The kids] would be walking on a shopping street, in these ragged clothes, but nobody said a word to them, ever. “So that’s the kind of city it is,” I thought as I was shooting. There was no need for them to make any sort of special face. I thought it would be more frightening if they were like ordinary kids, smiling like you see kids smiling anywhere.
I was particularly impressed by Yuya Yagira as Akira, the oldest boy. He matures as the film progresses, both physically and mentally, but he looks totally natural. There’s no sense that he’s constructing a character.
Well, he got taller, his hair grew, and his voice changed — I had nothing to do with that. Where I mainly directed him was his movements, his point of view and his line readings. His performance had to show the growth [of his character]. So I gave him more detailed instruction than the other children.
Usually in a Japanese film of this type, the children are pure-hearted innocents, so that the audience will sympathize with them. But with Yagira’s character there’s a darker side as well — you can’t always tell what he’s thinking. That comes from his lack of trust in adults, I think.
That’s right. He’s a kid who has to act the role of an adult, who has had the role of an adult thrust upon him.
That’s how he is at the start, but there are also times when he throws off that role and reverts to being a kid again. I was reminded of the Hiroshi Shimizu film “Children of the Beehive” (1948), in which the children are living on the street, but still haven’t totally forgotten to be children.
I heard that comparison at Cannes. I really like that film, but it was made right after the war when poverty was still a big theme. In my film, though, ordinary people are well-off — that’s an extremely important difference, I think.
In “Children of the Beehive,” the children’s situation is not really anyone’s fault, but in “Nobody Knows” the mother is to blame. Even so, she’s not an evil figure — she genuinely likes her kids. But there’s something mysterious about her — I didn’t quite understand her motives, even at the end.
In shooting the film, my viewpoint was close to that of the oldest boy. He can’t understand her 100 percent and we can only understand what he can understand. There is a limit to the information we have about the mother. For example, when she leaves the children we don’t know how she spends her time with her boyfriend. The children don’t know — so it’s not described in the film. So in that sense she’s a mystery.
Also, when the eldest boy phones her she answers with a different name — Yamamoto. That’s how he finds out something about her — and that’s how the audience finds out as well. They better understand how he feels.
So the mother may be a bit of a mystery, but I didn’t want to show her as evil. I didn’t want to attack her — in fact I didn’t want to make anyone the villain. I just wanted to depict her so the audience would believe she was the type of woman who would make such a choice.
You also don’t try to pump the audience for tears — though that would be obligatory with most Japanese films of this type.
That might have been smarter (laughs). That’s how a feel-good movie would end. The story would get emotional — there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But in this film I didn’t want to give the audience that sort of release.
That’s why I didn’t make it so people could have a good cry and say how sorry they felt [for the kids]. I wanted them to take away something. I think I succeeded, because when I read the comments people have left on my Web site they say they didn’t cry during the film, but after they got home they looked at their own children and cried. I don’t exactly want them to have flashbacks, though (laughs).
So they come away with something more than just a feeling of pity. I think that’s really important. A lot of people, especially Japanese, come to the theater to have a good cry. If they come [to this film] with that idea, though, they’re making a mistake. Of course, some will cry, but that wasn’t my intention.
I wanted to be more stoic. In fact, I got rid of anything sentimental.
When I got home after seeing it, I felt that what happened to those kids was not only someone else’s problem. I couldn’t just blame the mother.
It would be easy to say the mother is a terrible person. Then the audience can relax — you’ve made this bad guy who has nothing to do with them. They can watch without any sort of uneasiness.
But the bad guy is really the indifference of everyone in those kids’ lives. That includes the manager of the convenience store and the landlord of the apartment building. But if I were managing that convenience store, maybe I wouldn’t do any more than he did.
The film also made me wonder what is going to happen to Akira — he’s missed out on so much that ordinary kids take for granted.
I don’t think the situation [Akira] finds himself in at the end of the film is going to continue forever. His world will fall apart — and that will be a problem for him. But he does have the neighbor girl with him, though she’s not a relative. So although you can’t say the ending is happy, at least there is one outsider with him. There’s more of a feeling of possibility — at least that’s what I thought when I finished shooting. The presence of [an outsider] is really a plus for them. Their world will end by them venturing into the bigger world outside. They’ll encounter a new way of life, a new point of view.
If their world had collapsed from the inside it would have been really tragic. But instead this outsider enters their world and it starts to open up.
You’ve been working on this film for 15 years and now that you’ve made it do you feel that it’s put a period on something, that you want to look for a new theme? It seems that all your films have been about human loss.
Now that the film is finished and in the theaters I feel totally wiped out (laughs). For the past 10 years I thought that “Nobody Knows” was going to be my next film, but now that I’ve finally made it I have to find a new motivation inside myself.
When people tell me that sort of thing [about the theme] of my films, I start to wonder, “Why am I always writing about people who have lost someone important to them?” I don’t know myself why all my films tend to be that way, but for my next film I want to do something a bit different. Until now I’ve been making films that have a basis in reality — that’s always been my starting point — but now I want to try something that’s more fictional, so I’ve been thinking about a period drama.
What sort of period drama?
I have a treatment that I was writing while I was shooting “Nobody Knows.” Now I’m turning it into a script. I want to start shooting next spring.
Will it have a bigger budget than the films you’ve made so far?
A bit bigger — it’s not going to be a chanbara [swordfighting] film. It’s going to be about poor people, not samurai.
Something along the lines of “The Twilight Samurai?”
Something totally unlike “The Twilight Samurai” (laughs).
But that film was nominated for a Foreign Film Academy Award and was well-received abroad. Overseas, there’s still a lot of interest in the period drama, it seems.
Was it released in America?
Yes, in New York and a few other big cities. But “Zatoichi” got a bigger release.
Is “Zatoichi” doing well?
So I’ve heard — but you’re not interested in making that sort of genre film?
No — something more like Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths.” But maybe I shouldn’t say that or no one will come to see it (laughs).
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