Before establishing himself as one of Japan’s most internationally renowned directors, Hirokazu Koreeda was – and still is – a documentary maker. A year after making his feature film debut (1995’s “Maboroshi no hikari), “Without Memory” was his last documentary before dedicating his energies to feature films.
The documentary follows the life of unfortunate Sekine Hiroshi, who, following an operation, due to Japanese insurance complications, was mistakenly not given the necessary vitamins required while in recovery in a botched cost-cutting measure. When he awakes, Hiroshi can only recall his life up to the point of the surgery; everything beyond that is simply forgotten within minutes.
Filmed over a number of years, the documentary follows his relationship with his family: his wife and full-time confidant Miwa and his two sons and the discussions they have about what his experience is like not being able to recall anything that has just happened to him. Opposite to a “Groundhog Day” scenario, Hiroshi wakes each morning to new scenarios, but unable to recall the circumstances that brought him there. The nature of his relationship with the documentary crew is also reflected upon – naturally having only met them post-surgery.
We then move into a technical look at Hiroshi’s condition, Wernicke’s Kosakoff Syndrome, with interviews with clinicians working within the field, as well as an analysis of the legal context for the medical negligence and Hiroshi’s subsequent futile battles for compensation. Hiroshi stands as an example of how Japanese authorities are without memory of many victims their bureaucracy.
Moving to the future, Miwa reveals she is pregnant with his third child – a daughter – and the inevitable complications this will add to Hiroshi’s already complicated life. Only able to remember his growing sons up to the point of his operation, he will not be able to remember his daughter at all, apart from when she is placed in front of him, in a life that is destined to be lived between two worlds.
Made for TV Man Union, this is a documentary obviously low on thrills. Much of the film is based around the dining table in Hiroshi’s home as he has discussions with his wife or the film crew, with an interview style that would form a key part of his second feature and next work: “After Life” (1998).
The intrusion of the film crew also makes this documentary self-aware as Hiroshi has to deal with the entrance to his home life of people of which he has no recollection. After a pause in the making of the documentary, the crew return; Hiroshi is pleased that he is able to recall some of their names and faces, notably Koreeda. Following a suggestion, he takes to filming the crew in the hope that recall of their names and faces will be easier.
A man in limbo, “Without Memory” can be seen as research for many of the between-two-world scenarios that many of the characters of his later films would face and comes in parallel to “Maboroshi” made at the same time about a woman trapped by her past. Memory and people unable to move beyond a certain point in their lives would be themes Koreeda would touch on throughout his directorial career in “After Life”, “Distance” (2001), “Kiseki” (2011) and “After the Storm” (2016), among others. The new scenario of Hiroshi’s third child being born brings a change to the status quo and a need for change experienced by many of his characters.
Koreeda’s focus is on the importance of shared memories: something which Hiroshi will forever be denied. While he will be able to see his children grow before his eyes, he will not be able to share the experience with his wife, as tomorrow everything will need to be relearned. While he puts on a brave face and lives each day with his family, without memory, there will always be something missing from their lives.