Release Date: May 26th, 2001
Duration: 132 mins.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda (Script)
Starring: Yui Natsukawa, Yusuke Iseya, Arata, Susumu Terajima, Tadanobu Asano, Ryo, Kenichi Endo, Kanji Tsuda,
Hirokazu Kore-eda made Distance after he became interested in the disciples of Aum Shinrikyo, the group which committed the Tokyo subway sarin attack¹. He wanted to comment on how everyone in society could be responsible for it in some way. In so doing, he strikes at a universal fear surely felt by everyone which is that perhaps those who should be the closest to us are sometimes the ones furthest away.
This idea of distance is given to us through the story of a group of people who are ostensibly disconnected from each other but each has a deep personal connection to a terrorist incident described at the start of the film by a radio announcer.
We are introduced to each character in brief snippets as the film intercuts scenes of their daily lives. First, there is Kiyoka Yamamoto (Yui Natsukawa), a nice teacher at a high school and she has a son who is staying with her father. Minoru Kai (Susumu Terajima) is a reliable salaryman for a construction company and he has a young family. Atsushi Mizuhara (Arata) is a flower shop worker who kindly visits an old man in a hospital. Then there is the gregarious Masaru Enoki (Yusuke Iseya) who we see hanging out with his bubbly girlfriend in the lively streets of Shibuya. He is planning a trip. This trip will unite these characters as they each head out of Tokyo to a lake in a forest in a remote region.
As they travel together, they talk and slowly get to know each other on a surface level. We discover they are related to members of the cult that sabotaged Tokyo’s water supply, something which resulted in the deaths of hundreds. These cult members then committed suicide and had their ashes scattered by the lake. It is the anniversary of the attack, and these four people are heading to the lake to remember them. When they arrive, they meet a former member of the cult, Koichi Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), who had fled during the incident. He keeps his distance from the four from Tokyo but is forced to help them when they find their vehicles they travelled into the forest in have disappeared.
Although a contrived way to bottle these characters up, it works because dusk is approaching and so is heavy rain and they need shelter so Sakata leads them to the cult’s old headquarters, a cabin where they spend the night talking. What they talk about, usually in pairs with Sakata who serves as a confessor of sorts, is the moment when their loved ones told them they were joining the cult and family ties rupture. The film utilises flashbacks with each conversation where the distance between the quartet at the cabin and those who committed mass murder is revealed.
We see scenes such as Kiyoka’s husband (Kenichi Endo) and Enoki’s brother (Kanji Tsuda) explaining feelings of alienation from society and frustration with archetypal family structures. They have struggled to fit into socially prescribed roles and sought family connection with a cult which provided mental comfort.
For those left behind and fully comfortable with conventionality, their reactions range from violent to stupefied to wishy-washy as they believably deal with the shock of the break in relationship they ignored or missed and struggle to comprehend the gap and, eventually, give up on people clearly in need of help, preferring distance to maintain order in their lives. Their failing is pointedly brought out in police interviews where detectives incredulously ask, why they didn’t see anything and they can only offer excuses.
Thematically, it fits Kore-eda’s oeuvre in keeping with his interest in family ties and hits the common fear that a relative could suddenly turn around and be strangers. How does one react? Hopefully by not giving up or rejecting as the characters here do. Kore-eda does maintain sympathy with the family members who are struggling to comprehend things and shows how they, too, are alienated and feel distance from others.
Kore-eda uses lighting and visual framing to build on the narrative, the theme of isolation and distance, and the character’s emotional state.
Getting across the distance these characters face is the camerawork which often frames them singularly even if they are in a conversation with others. When they are physically close to people, their proximity is less important than the line of travel they are engaged in which is away from others, or through crowds which separate around them. Characters often look off in different directions when conversing and generally eye-contact is avoided. Everyone appears to be separated from a loved one by an object such as a table or netting for a baseball diamond, and Kiyoka from her son staying with her father. We recognise that the quartet who failed to see the distance the distance between themselves and the cultists are struggling with their own isolation now.
Even if not a lot appears to be happening, weighty emotions are delivered with cinematography and naturalistic acting from the cast. According to an interview, the cast were given scenarios for their characters and their interactions and allowed to improvise and build up their own chemistry which contains hesitancy and the sort of embarrassed and aggravated confessions and confrontations and melancholy but also hope because they can smile at the end and they can try to narrow the distance between themselves and the loved ones still in their lives.
Distance is mysterious, not suspenseful. Quiet and naturalistic in execution, as conversations take precedent, with poetic visuals left for the ending. With scenes shot in such a specific way that the atmosphere soon takes over, we imbibe on world’s of loneliness and isolation felt by the cultists who have drifted away from loved ones and it is chilling.
¹ Taken from the Cannes interview he gave which is linked on Wikipedia