The nature of memory is a recurrent theme in the cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda. Often, it functions as a device to cultivate perspective or structure, as in Distance (2001) or Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking (2008). In films like Mabaroshi no hikari (Mabarosi, 1996) and Wandafuru raifu (After Life, 1998), it forms a more central theme – a mode of examining the past in a contemporary Japan where culturally, bygone events are commonly repressed. Serving as an important precursor to all these films, Without Memory (1996) marks a highpoint in Kore-eda’s early career, when in the early-to-mid ’90s he produced several television documentaries for TV Man Union, Japan’s first independent television network. Made after Watashi wa nihonjin ni naritakatta (I Wanted to Be Japanese, 1992) and Kare no inai hachigatsu ga (August Without Him, 1994), Without Memory completes a triptych of films that examines marginalised members of Japanese society and charts the evolution of Kore-eda’s personal, thematic vision.

Without Memory follows Hiroshi Sekine, who after being hospitalised for abdominal surgery in 1992 fell victim to severe medical malpractice. Due to the Japanese government’s attempt to reduce its healthcare deficit, Sekine was withheld vitamins integral to his wellbeing and subsequently contracted Wernicke’s Kosakoff Syndrome, a damaging of the brain that prevents him from accumulating new memories. The film is, ostensibly, a searing remonstration against a government privileging cost cutting over the welfare of its people. Moreover, it is a lyrical rumination on memory, loss and selfhood – themes with which Kore-eda is still engaged to this day.

Privy to his Grandfather’s Alzheimer’s from the age of six, Kore-eda has long been preoccupied with memory loss. As a high school student, influenced by Fantastic Voyage (Richard Fleischer, 1966), he even penned a script, which entailed shrinking himself down and entering his Grandfather’s brain to restore his lost memories.1 While unable to save Sekine, Kore-eda nevertheless injects himself and his crew into the film – Without Memory taking the form of participatory documentary. Renowned for his compassion and humanism, it is Kore-eda’s investment in his subjects that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Forging a bond with Sekine that propels the work forward, Kore-eda takes an interactive approach towards his filmmaking, enabling him to explore notions of humanistic connectivity.

Without Memory takes a standard documentary structure, flowing in chronological fashion. Taking a long-form approach, events unfurl over three years – the crew returning every few months to find Sekine having forgotten who they are and why they are there. Kore-eda depicts memories as dynamic, fluid and ever-changing. 2 Yet, as Sekine cannot create new ones, Kore-eda stands in as substitute, allowing the process of filmmaking to serve as a memory-making endeavour. As he explains: “It seems to me that it doesn’t matter how much the subject of the film changes, if I don’t change too – if there isn’t a kind of chemical reaction between us – then the film loses half its significance.”3

Without Memory focuses on Sekine, his wife, Miwa and their two children as they work towards restoring normalcy. It is imbued with a lyricism that evokes Sekine’s inner-struggles. For instance, Kore-eda pays special attention to a singular event – Sekine taking his son, Taku grocery shopping. Captured on film, this is one of the few memories that even months later, Sekine can recall. It is easy to read Sekine’s concern for his son, carrying a basket that it is too heavy for his willowy stature, as subconscious anxiety around the burden his memory-loss causes his children. As Sekine and Taku return home, Kore-eda’s camera lingers on their shadows stretching across the pavement in the late afternoon sun. We see how the light – like Sekine’s memories when blocked – casts a long dark shadow, following him wherever he goes. When Taku challenges him to a race home, Sekine is physically too slow and one is struck by the fact that as his children continue to grow that mentally too, he may be incapable of catching them.
Like many of Kore-eda’s films, Without Memory sits at the nexus between drama and documentary. Kore-eda’s interest lies in the emotions that arise from the collision between so-called real life and the artifice of film.4 This is explored when Kore-eda lends the family a video camera to capture events and perhaps compensate for Sekine’s lost memories. He captures images of the demolition of a building, an ever-flowing stream and an igloo built by his children that will inevitably melt with the onset of spring – each symbolising impermanence and the fleeting nature of memory. Here, Kore-eda seems to ground the film in cinema’s power to externalise our innermost emotions.
Soon, Sekine turns the camera back onto the filmmakers; a distinct cut to Sekine’s point of view effectively taking the viewer behind the scenes of the film itself. At first this experiment seems to work as Sekine comes to associate faces with the names of the crew. Later however, when he re-watches the recordings, he cannot identify himself or recall the meeting occurring. Here, Kore-eda questions the validity of documentary representation – presenting a sort of indictment of filming reality and presenting it as truth, suggesting that without emotional connection, reference or resonance, documentary cinema carries an innately fictional element. 5

While other directors may focus on this lack, Kore-eda investigates the emotional connections external to Sekine, the human connectivity in his life that can help shape his personal identity. Without Memory explores the possibility that the confluence of the fictional properties of cinema and memory can create a new sort of truth. As Kore-eda explains: “Sekine himself doesn’t even recognise that he has a personality. But meeting his family proved to me that you [could] have an identity that depends on other people’s memories. So even when you die, part of your identity will reside in others.”6 In this, Without Memory serves as a poignant, ontological exploration of how the self is not just something internal but has the potential to spring forth from those we surround ourselves with.


Without Memory (1996, Japan, 75 minutes)

Prod Co: TV Man Union Inc. Prod: Katsuhiko Hayashi, Suguro Sato Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda Phot: Shigeru Honda Ed: Hirokazu Kore-eda Mus: Yasuhiro Kasamatsu

Cast: James Naughton (Narrator)



  1. Jonathan Romney, “The Memory Game,” The Guardian, 28 September 1999, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/1999/sep/28/artsfeatures2
  2. Michael Sloyka, “After Film: Cinema and Memories in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life,” The Quarterly Conversation 33 (September 2013), http://quarterlyconversation.com/after-film-cinema-and-memories-in-hirokazu-kore-edas-after-life
  3. Aaron Gerow & Tanaka Junko, “Documentarists of Japan #12: Hirokazu Koreeda,” Documentary Box 13 (August 1999), http://www.yidff.jp/docbox/docbox2-e.html
  4. Cleo Cacoulidis, “Talking to Hirokazu Kore-eda: On Mabarosi, Nobody Knows and Other Pleasures,” Bright Lights Film Journal (January 2005), http://brightlightsfilm.com/talking-to-hirokazu-kore-eda-on-maborosi-nobody-knows-and-other-pleasures/#.WQFzjjdEfNU
  5. Michael Leader, “Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt. 3: The Problem of Remembering in Without Memory and After Life,” Wild Thyme (June, 2010), http://wildtyme.blogspot.com.au/2010/06/347-kore-eda-hirokazu-pt3-problem-of.html
  6. Jonathan Romney, “The Memory Game,” The Guardian, 28 September 1999, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/1999/sep/28/artsfeatures2

About The Author

Nathan Senn is a Melbourne-based arts and film writer. He is Head of Programming at both the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) and the Environmental Film Festival Australia (EFFA) and regularly contributes to programs for MIFF and Sydney Film Festival.

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