The Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been somewhat prolific during the course of the past twenty years, directing a total of eleven fictional films and documentaries, many of which he also wrote and edited. His reputation as a writer and director who is concerned primarily with traditional, humanist issues has led to inevitable comparisons with the great Yasujiro Ozu, and this 2008 story of a family gathering in memory of a dead son and brother shares many of the same themes contained in Ozu’s Tokyo Story in particular: Kore-eda also explores the disconnect that exists between generations and couples, the tensions that build within crowded, traditional Japanese houses, repression, mistreatment and loss. Still Walking also brings to mind some of Ozu’s techniques as applied to shooting indoors: as the camera slowly moves around the crowded rooms a slight sense of claustrophobia is accentuated by the constant closing of blinds and shoji screens, sealing off areas of the house.
Tokyo Story was a lament for lost values that highlighted changes in post-war Japanese society via the microcosm of two elderly parents visiting their mean-spirited younger children. There is a reversal of that scenario here, with retired doctor Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) hosting daughter Chinami (pop star and actress You), son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and their respective families for 24 hours. This annual gathering has taken place for the past 15 years to mark the anniversary of the death of Junpei, Kyohei and Toshiko’s second son, who perished while rescuing a boy in the sea. There’s a sense that the younger characters are now going through the motions with regard to the remembrance, and that it is all taking place for the benefit of Toshiko, the mother who has understandably struggled to move on from the loss.
Despite the similarities with Tokyo Story, Still Walking is no mere pastiche. It functions as a lyrical treatise on the subject of death, a recurring theme in Kore-eda’s work, and subtly examines the notion of time running out for the elderly while also looking at the effects that tragedy has on individuals and families. The deliberate, slow pace allows us to reflect fully on the state that these characters are in, both physical and mental, while also allowing for appreciation of the nuanced dialogue; many words are spoken that are laced with acerbic half-insults and other hidden meanings. This slowness also means we can assess, to a reasonably satisfying extent, the way that the relationships between the characters have changed in the years since Junpei’s death, and whether the tragedy has caused certain inter-personal developments or whether they probably would have occurred anyway.
While eldest son Ryota is not exactly estranged from his family, he sees the visits home as a chore, partly because he has a troubled relationship with his father. Ryota is out of work but has not told Kyohei, and he fervently checks his phone for news of employment. Kyohei coldly grumbles his way around the house post-retirement, bitter that he has not been succeeded in his medical practice by his surviving son, and certain in his mind that Junpei would have done so had he lived. A tall man, Ryota has a permanent, awkward-looking stoop while indoors, the cramped space forcing him to bend over as he moves from room to room, and increasing the sense that he is ill at ease in this house. He is recently married to a widow named Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), who also finds the visit trying because of provocative comments made by Toshiko; Yukari’s son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) is also still mourning the loss of his biological father. Chinami seemingly has a better relationship with her parents and is keen for them to move in with her, but her mother secretly complains that Chinami’s husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) is full of empty promises, and that Chinami and Nobuo’s children are too loud and energetic for her liking.
In one sense very little actually happens during this 24 hour period. Meals are prepared and eaten, walks to the cemetery and the shoreline are taken and the family is visited by a sushi restaurant owner as well as the man who was saved by Junpei as a boy (now an awkward, clumsy adult whose life every year is the subject of a semi-tortuous, judgment-laden analysis by the elderly couple, who seem intent on satisfying their belief that the ‘wrong’ person died in the accident). Yet there is much detail in the innocuous moments that make up the majority of the film: Ryota’s tactile examination of broken bathroom tiles and a new safety handrail indicates the decline of his parents in both a subtle and an obvious way, the pleasantries Kyohei exchanges with an ill, elderly neighbor brings to mind the inevitability of death as well as public masks that hide one’s true character, and even the playing of a record is a design that reveals Toshiko’s long-standing sadness at her lot, caused many years previously by Kyohei’s infidelity.
The family history is unveiled slowly through conversations that often take place between two characters. The action – if you can call it that – moves from one room to another, the sliding doors always cutting off the space and isolating those in dialogue from the rest of the family. It’s very cramped, particularly while Chinami and her husband and kids are also in the house, and Kore-eda is only able to pull back and show more when the camera is trained on the exterior of the house from the garden, or when family members go for their slow walks. Eventually, as in Michael Haneke’s Amour, the hallway, rooms and tatami mats all become as familiar to the viewer as the characters themselves.
The spectre of death looms over Still Walking. In one beautiful scene a butterfly enters the room from outside and eventually lands upon a picture of Junpei, which leads Toshiko to believe it is the spirit of her son. Soon afterwards we see Atsushi outside, talking to his dead father. Kyohei is seen helplessly watching on during a medical emergency, shoved aside by a younger ambulance crew when a neighbour’s heart condition suddenly deteriorates, a telling act of inter-generational dismissal. If there was any doubt about the film’s primary concern, a downbeat coda adds a full stop, so to speak. It is a poignant ending given earlier conversations in which Kyohei and Ryota made vague plans on attending a football match together, and Chinami and Toshiko chat about future plans to co-habit. Kore-eda’s film is a beautiful examination of death and loss, of life in flux, and also the long-standing resentments that can gnaw away at the stability of familial relationships. Rather than merely imitating Ozu, he cleverly shows that certain issues in Japanese family life are as relevant today as they were during that revered director’s heyday, and his quiet film – which ignores the explosions of rage or revelations we are used to in the equivalent type of film in western cinema – is a fascinating, poetic work.
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yoshio Harada, Kirin Kiki, You, Yui Natsukawa, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka
Running Time: 114 minutes