Perhaps best known for his existential drama After Life, set in purgatory, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is also responsible for a number of highly regarded documentary films as well as the sterling domestic dramas Still Walking, Nobody Knows, and Maborosi. His new film, Air Doll, returns him to the realm of supernature in telling the story of a blow-up doll that comes to life and gradually grows more human. With the assistance of his translator Beth Cary, Kore-eda talked with me about his career and Air Doll, his latest entry into the San Francisco International Film Festival. We chatted in the festival’s Media Center, located in an auditorium of the Sundance Kabuki Theatre.
Groucho: So Air Doll is based on a short manga, and I’ve heard that you found and loved the story ten years ago. How did you come to it, and why did it take hold of your imagination?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: The starting point was the scene in the video shop, where the plastic doll gets snagged on a nail, and she deflates. In the manga, it was a two-page scene—that you could see both of the pages [ed.: a “splash page” spread]—and so you see this doll that’s deflated on the floor, and then the young man tapes her up and starts inflating her by breathing his breath into her body. And I thought that looked very erotic. And that it could be shown in a very erotic way without showing two naked bodies. So, using the breath as a source of eroticism and the sound that the plastic makes as it’s being inflated I thought would be very interesting to do. So that was the kernel of the idea. And then, of course, I did a lot of research to fill it out a little bit more, talking to a man who actually lives with such a plastic doll, and also going to a doll-maker’s shop and interviewing that person as well.
G: What did you learn from interviewing the man who lives with a doll?
HK: The details that appear in the film of the man’s life are pretty much the same as the details that I found in this man’s life, that I interviewed. And although the doll is a substitute for handling sexual desires, it also is somebody who is at home, that the man can return home to, to have somebody there. And, for example, he buys two bottles of something to drink at the convenience store, rather than just one. And what seemed to me completely alien from my way of living, these people who are called “doll-ers,” I felt a little bit closer to them because somehow they want their loneliness to be overcome and fulfilled by something that’s not human, because they can’t have a human companion. And it might be similar to the way people feel about their pet or how they feel about their plants, so that evokes similar emotions in people. So I got a lot of inspiration from interviewing and discussing things with this person.
G: So what does it mean to have a heart or a soul? Did making the film bring you closer to an understanding of that mystery?
HK: (Long pause.) A very difficult question. I don’t know that this is a good answer to your question, but we usually…when we think of our heart or soul, we kind of press toward our actual physical heart, but I think that kind of soul or emotion can’t exist on one’s own; it has to be between people, or between you and some other being. But I might be criticized for equating emotions with soul. I think the souls can only exist in places where we have connection with others. So the doll is loved by the man, so then she becomes something that can develop a soul, because she has been loved. And that’s how I approached that. (Begins sketching.) In Chinese, this is a phrase that [director] Hou Hsiao-hsien, who I admire greatly, writes when requested to write some important—this means “Emotions are in the world.” It’s not in oneself—emotion is not something that you have within yourself, but it’s something that’s out there, and then you feel that. And the cinematographer I worked with on this film, Mark Lee Ping-bing, he is one who can actually grasp the emotions that are around in the world. So I think this philosophy is based on a non-human way of thinking, and so that’s close to how I feel. And this is the way I was feeling while I was making this movie.
G: You’ve said that Air Doll, like others of your films, includes autobiographical aspects, so is this film a confession of social isolation?
HK: (Chuckles.) Well, as a love story, this is a story that ends in tragedy, and it has to end in tragedy because a love story really should be between two humans, and it can’t be between a doll and a person. But as she exhales all her air, that air wafts in the atmosphere and affects other people. And it might be just the slight tinkling of a chime, or it could really change somebody’s way of looking at things. So by somebody exhaling or by that person passing away, it affects the next generation. So life doesn’t end with oneself, but the legacy lives on in other people. And I probably began to think this way because I, myself, had a child (laughs), so the more optimistic aspect of the film, I think, is what is closer to what my life is like now.
G: One expects Junichi to be the answer to Nozumi’s “man problem,” but he wants her to sacrifice her comfort to satisfy his desire, so I’d like to hear you talk a bit about, I guess, the sexual politics between men and women, the “give and take,” so to speak.
G: Or the sexual "negotiation."
HK: So perhaps rather than whether the man or the woman has the upper or lower status in terms of sexual connection, I think what I was trying to get at was the sort of slight disjunct, gap, between what a man wants and what a woman wants. What the man wants is the woman’s recurring death, because he wants to deflate her. And what she wants is that, once the air has been blown into her by a man, she wants that, so she throws away her pump, so she can’t inflate herself anymore. So that kind of deflation and inflation becomes the way that this negotiation is accomplished. So for the man, it’s to deflate her, and for the woman, it’s to be inflated. So there’s a kind of a gap between what they want, what each of them wants.
G: With Hideo, because Nozumi has a heart, because she is innocent, those sex scenes could be read as unintentional rape or sexual slavery. I wonder if this possibility came to mind.
HK: (Long pause.) Well, so before she had a heart, she wasn’t really feeling anything. After she has a heart, or soul, the act changes within her. That’s why she hides in the closet and wants to escape from it. It becomes distasteful to her, and she wants to escape. (Long pause.) But he loves her in the best way he can, with all his heart, as a doll; he really does love her. He is very kind; he bathes her; he buys special shampoo for her, clothes for her; takes her to the park. Not many Japanese men are that nice to their human lovers. (Laughs.) So putting aside the way she feels, he is really loving her with as much as he can. (Laughs.)
G: How did you come to choose Bae Doona? I suppose you had seen Linda Linda Linda or her Korean films.
HK: So I had seen Linda Linda Linda as well as Take Care of My Cat and Barking Dogs Never Bite, a couple of her earlier films, and had thought that she was a wonderful actress. Korean films are having a heyday right now, but when I look at them I see that the emotional highs and lows are very distinct in the way the Korean actors act. But with her, she seems to be more on kind of an even keel, and yet be able to suggest that kind of emotion. And I think that sort of control is easier for us in Japan, or me, to take in. And then that sort of sensibility and sensitivity that she can show was very usable in a Japanese film, and I think other Japanese directors feel the same about her as well.
G: In making a stylistic break with this film, I know you used a completely different crew and wanted to change everything. Can you talk about your approach in achieving a more poetic effect?
HK: In Still Walking, the previous film, I wanted to approach it from the point of a very realistic film, so we reached a consensus with the staff that we would approach it as realism and give a real sense of living one’s everyday life. So the artwork, the cinematography, the costumes were all based on that thought. But in this film, this is a very non-real film where a doll starts moving around. So it’s as if I changed paints, the color palette that I used: from the costumes, the colors of the costumes and the material used—so I painted a different picture in a different frame is the way I feel.
G: You once said that After Life was so private to you that you were a bit embarrassed to release it. Though the subject of the film is universal, it could also be taken as a metaphor for the anxiety of achieving the perfect image—in the finite time of a career on film. Did you see it that way at all?
HK: (Long pause.) What I think I was thinking of when I mentioned that my private life was reflected in After Life was that I started out as a documentary director. So a documentary director goes out and interviews and does research and makes documentary programs. So you go into other people’s lives. But I feel like I was making works that had other people’s lives in them, but I had no life of my own. And the only thing that will be left of me will be these works that will actually show other people’s lives rather than myself. So I took that in a rather negative way in my twenties, and I was concerned: “Where is my life? Will my life end just by researching other people’s lives?” And so as a documentary filmmaker, I sort of dropped into other people’s lives just for a short while to find out what their lives are like in order to depict their lives, but then I started thinking that those other people who have been the subjects of the documentary have been affected in some way by having a documentary made of them. So something of me will remain in them as they live on. So I started to become more positive about my work. And I started enjoying making documentaries more. So I think that was the kind of feeling I had. The main character in After Life as well develops in that way, that he becomes more fulfilled in helping the other people choose their moments, et cetera.
G: Thank you very much. Our time is up!