Feature Four Frames

The Importance of Saying Goodbye: Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Distance

Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Distance (Disutansu, Japan, 2001) is a film about memories and farewells: the farewells of people spending their last moments together and about the ultimate farewell – to the dead. The film’s story is closely related to an event that still continues to haunt Japanese society – the gas attack on Tokyo’s subway in 1995 by members of the cult Aum Shinrikyo. In the film, a report on the radio about the third anniversary of the poisoning of the water supply system in Tokyo by a mysterious cult called The Ark of Truth refers to a fictitious attack that cost the lives of 128 people and left 8,000 injured. References to Aum Shinrikyo recur in the film, one being the name of this cult, which translates literally as “Aum Supreme Truth”. The radio report from the off gives the opening sequence a documentary-like quality, underlining its strong connection with reality in Japanese society.

Distance explores the traumas experienced by four close relatives of the perpetrators, who apparently committed suicide after poisoning Tokyo’s water supply. The principal characters are the two young adults Atsushi Mizuhara (Arata) and Masaru Enoki (Yusuke Iseya), the teacher Kiyoka Yamamoto (Yu Natsukawa), and the salaryman Minoru Kai (Susumu Terajima). Atsushi mourns the death of his sister Yuko (Ryo) and Masaru that of his older brother Satoshi (Kanji Tsuda). Kiyoka has lost her husband Tamaki (Ken’ichi Endo), and Minoru his ex-wife (Yorie Yamashita), who had joined the cult together with her new partner, one of Minoru’s former colleagues. Since the attack, the four bereaved have met once a year at a lonely lake deep in a forest where the ashes of the perpetrators were strewn by surviving members of the cult.

Returning from the lake, they discover that their car has been stolen. Not only is their car gone but also the motorcycle of Kōichi Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who has recently been released from prison. He was one of the six chosen to poison the water supply system, but had defected the night before the crime and turned himself over to the police. He has now come back to the forest where he and the other five cult members had lived in a cabin close to the lake before committing their crime. 

The four bereaved make the acquaintance of Sakata, and, the nearest town being too far, decide to spend the night in the deserted cabin. During that night in the forest, Sakata gives the four others insights into the reclusive lifestyle of the cult members in their hiding place and answers questions about those who had died.

Kore-Eda’s highly allusive approach to the past is apparent right from the opening sequence. The link to the murderous attack on the water supply is established by the radio commentary that accompanies a series of shots introducing the four main characters. However, the nature of this link is not established immediately, with just a few fragments of dialogue suggesting that they have come to the lake to mourn their loved ones. It is not until they meet Sakata that their relationship to the perpetrators is fully revealed when Masaru, the most extroverted of the four, tells Sakata that they are all members of the families of the perpetrators reuniting on the anniversary of their relatives’ death.

During the night in the cabin, memories re-emerge. In a series of flashbacks, the saboteurs explain their reasons for joining the cult, the flashbacks focusing on the last moments the four main characters spent with them before they started a new life as members of the cult. The last encounters between Kiyoka and her husband and Minoru and his ex-wife are turbulent, and Kiyoka, who refuses to join the cult, denies her husband access to their apartment. Minoru has a heated argument with his ex-wife and her new partner in a restaurant, and while Minoru becomes more and more aggressive, his ex-wife and her boyfriend remain calm.

Atsushi is shown on several occasions in conversation with Yuko – on the bank of a river and at dawn in the streets of Tokyo just before Yuko’s departure. It is in particular the last meeting between Masaru and Satoshi that is a true farewell scene. Satoshi has joined his younger brother at the indoor swimming pool where Masaru works as an instructor. He tells his younger brother that he is going to give up studying medicine because he believes in a holistic medicine that heals not only the body, as Western-oriented medicine teaches, but also heals the soul. He hopes to find this kind of alternative medicine in the cult. Masaru does not share his brother’s idealistic view of the cult and he even mocks it, but despite his scepticism, he respects Satoshi’s decision. After this conversation at the swimming pool, the two brothers walk down the street eating ice cream – a very everyday scene of two young men enjoying life. At a crossroads they part company – Satoshi saying that he will officially sever all ties with the family and that they will not see each other again for some time. They shake hands and Satoshi comments that his hands are now as sticky from the ice cream as Masaru’s. They wave goodbye to each other, both smiling. Masaru watches his brother walk away and disappear from view but then seems more preoccupied with his sticky fingers than with his brother’s departure – his attitude underlining that he does not understand the full significance of Satoshi’s decision.

The flashbacks reveal the re-emergence of presumably suppressed memories, a past still lingering. In media coverage or fictional accounts of terrorist attacks, the destiny of the families of the terrorists are rarely taken into consideration, but in his film, Kore-Eda shows that they too are traumatized victims. His protagonists have lost their loved ones without having been able to bid them a proper farewell. None of them could have suspected that they would never see their brother, sister, husband or ex-wife again. Their trauma is all the greater since the bodies of the dead have not been found.

The lives of the protagonists have changed following the disappearance of their loved ones, something that is however only hinted at and alluded to rather than fully revealed. A series of shots early in the film shows how the four characters now live. Atsushi visits his elderly bedridden father in a nursing home and cares for him lovingly. Masaru, the epitome of a carefree youth, enjoys life with his girlfriend, playing video games in an arcade. Kiyoka spends a lonely evening in her gloomy apartment, preparing rice balls for the trip to the lake. Minoru is bored by a talkative colleague at a restaurant, but is also shown with his new wife and their child in their tiny apartment, playing happily with his little daughter, the apple of his eye.

Each of them mourns differently. This is revealed by their attitude on the lakeside jetty where they bid farewell to the dead. Masaru is the first to reach the end of the jetty. He folds his hands only briefly and walks back almost immediately. Minoru is also content to bow slightly and fold his hands in a quick gesture, while Atsushi and Kiyoka both pray for a considerable time. Atsushi also lets a bunch of daisies – Yuko’s favourite flowers – slide into the water.

Later in the cabin, their grief is revealed more clearly. The introverted Kiyoka has internalized her feelings and does not start talking about her dead husband until the early hours of the morning. Minoru is still full of anger towards his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, whose decision to join the cult he is unable to understand. Masaru pretends not to be affected by his brother’s death. In a flashback showing him being questioned by the police, he states that he and Satoshi were not very close. This is in marked contrast to the farewell scene between the two brothers and is an obvious lie. In an early sequence, Masaru conceals from his girlfriend the real reason for leaving Tokyo to visit the lake and pretends that Atsushi is a fellow friend from university. His behaviour reveals his inability to accept Satoshi’s disappearance and his guilty feelings for not having taken seriously enough Satoshi’s decision to sever all his ties with his family. When Minoru asks Masaru about the suling that he has brought back from Indonesia, the young man denies that this is in any way connected with Satoshi. However, at one point he wanders away from the cabin to play the instrument in the nocturnal solitude of the forest – his way of mourning the death of his brother.

The final sequences show the four main protagonists back in their everyday lives. In Minoru’s and Kiyoka’s case, life does not seem to have changed. In contrast, the visit to the lake in the forest has triggered a healing process in Masaru. Having come to terms with the situation, he now talks openly to his girlfriend about the people he spent two days with and, having regained the carefree attitude he displayed in the opening sequences, even shows her photos of them.

Atsushi, too, is able to say farewell and let go. He returns to the lake, now throwing a white lily into the water. This was the cult’s emblematic flower, but for him it is forever associated with his father and his home, often decorated with lilies, as a number of flashbacks show. It is only in this last part of the film that the truth about Atsushi’s past is revealed and the fact that his story is built on a lie. The shots of a stranger sitting in a garden, which were shown earlier in a brief flashback, are suddenly laden with meaning. This unnamed man is Atsushi’s real father, the leader of the cult, and he also committed suicide. Having kept this a secret, Atsushi now reveals his need to come to terms with the disappearance of a loved one and the latter’s terrible crime. Visiting the lake again is his way of coping with loss and the feeling of being abandoned.

At the end of the film, he sets fire to the jetty. According to Buddhist belief, fire both destroys and purifies, as does water. Images of water – the water of the lake and a river and the rain that falls at one point – are abundant in the film, symbolizing purification and rebirth. The natural setting and the symbolism of the elements imbue the film with deep spiritual meaning. The use of a hand-held camera, the absence of sophisticated lighting and the lack of music – except for the sound of the suling – give the film a documentary character, connecting it more closely with the reality in Japanese society that it refers to. However, Distance deals with individuals and with their traumas, insisting on the difficulty of overcoming them but also the necessity to do so.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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