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‘Both the novelistic touches and the documentary details in Kore-eda’s work reflect his formative years—he studied literature at Tokyo’s Waseda University and began his career making nonfiction films for Japanese television. August Without Him (1994) centers on the first Japanese man to publicly admit contracting HIV through gay sexual contact; Without Memory (1996), likewise structured around direct encounters with the subject, is about a man who, due to a botched surgical procedure, suffers from a rare form of amnesia that prevents his brain from creating new memories. The fascination with mnemonic process in After Life stems from the stranger-than-fiction case of Without Memory. I have these things going on over here that want me to be here, and I’m trying to evade them. I always liked it ‘cos it had this sort of trashy feel relative to Knotts Scary Farm, which is kind of the god re: the big production spooky house circuit in my option, or the high budget Universal one.
Nobody Knows—which has affinities with Kore-eda’s first documentary, Lessons from a Calf (1991), about elementary school kids learning to care for a calf (and in the process to cope with loss)—is loosely based on a child-abandonment news story that scandalized Japan in the eighties. In After Life (1998), a supernatural fable about the materiality of memory (and of film), the newly deceased find themselves in an ethereal limbo where they pick a single worldly recollection to be turned into an eternal celluloid keepsake. Distance (2001) observes the conflicting emotions—the sorrow, shame, and incomprehension—of the relatives of cult members who participated in a fatal terrorist attack and a ritualistic mass suicide. (1991) links the life stories of two suicides: a bureaucrat in charge of Japan’s social welfare system and a woman who was a casualty of its failures. Um, if I go to LA, and it looks like I will, I’m still not sure how long I’ll be there, hopefully for a bit. It lingers in the kitchen as daikons are peeled, carrots chopped, edamame washed and salted. The humble corn tempura fritter is the equivalent here of Proust’s madeleine, and Kore-eda captures the vivid details of its preparation, from the snapping of the kernels off the cob to the crackle of the batter as it hits the hot oil. Ha ha, okay, 700 pages, I think it’s virtually assured that I’m not going to even attempt to read a cycle whose single books sport page numbers like that.