The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Japan 2008)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 1 March 2010

Ryo and his mother return from a visit to his brother’s grave.

Still Walking is a beautiful film made by a filmmaker at the top of his game. Kore-eda Hirokazu wrote, directed and edited this film, a traditional shomengeki – a film about lower middle-class people, a ‘family drama’. The events unfold over 24 hours with a brief coda. It is the 12th anniversary of the death of the elder son of the Yokoyama family and the two surviving siblings return to the family home in a small town on the coast outside Tokyo. The younger son Ryo is with the young widow he has recently married (at the age of 40) and her young son. His sister is with her husband and two children. Ryo has travelled from Tokyo and his family stay the night. The various conflicts within the family relationships mainly derive from Ryo’s father’s increasingly difficult behaviour. Part of this is his refusal to properly acknowledge Ryo as next in line after the death of his older brother. Ryo’s mother’s behaviour is more ambiguous as it oscillates between welcoming the young widow and being rather negative towards her and her son.

[A note on social class: in today's newspaper, Japan and Germany are quoted as much more equal societies than the UK or the US. This may explain why the house of a retired doctor (a GP) in Japan seems less ostentatious than the middle-class houses of doctors over here.]

There is no conventional action as such or much in the way of plot in Still Walking. We gradually begin to understand what has happened in the family and by the end of the film we are much closer to understanding how Ryo feels. In the main we experience the aftermath of actions and contemplate what might happen in the future. The film is highly personal and Kore-eda tells us on the beautifully designed official website that he made the film following the death of his own parents and that sense that he hadn’t told them everything that he wanted to say.

The film has been very well-received (so it’s a puzzle why it took so long to get to the UK) and inevitably perhaps it has been compared to the common perception of the films of Ozu Yasujiro. There are obvious similarities in theme to Tokyo Story (even if it is the children who travel rather than the parents) and we might also see an Ozu connection in the well-observed younger children. Yet in style terms, Kore-eda has relatively little in common with Ozu apart from the occasional low camera position (around the dining table) a train shot or two and perhaps a couple of street shots. Kore-eda began in documentary and his camera seems more ‘observant’ in its fluid movements around the house and the neighbourhood – i.e. it is as if the camera sometimes goes looking for scenes to observe rather than being placed in order to record them as they happen. Omar on his blog refers to Kore-eda as being of the same generation as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and it is certainly interesting to compare this film with Tokyo Sonata – another family drama, but in a very different style. I’ve also seen a reference to Naruse, but I think that I need to see a few more of Naruse’s 1950s films to assess what the link might be.

Still Walking is beautifully written and for me the film is stolen by Kiki Kirin as the mother, Toshiko, who is given many of the best lines. She is in turn the most cruel, the most coldly calculating and yet the most emotional and yes, the most loving. She also delivers one of the few ‘shocking’ moments (i.e. in narrative terms) of revelation. She also cooks a great deal and this is one of the real pleasures of the film – whether she is deep frying corn tempura, preparing large prawns, shelling fresh soya beans (?) or simply mixing ingredients there is a real sense of preparing for a family celebration. If you ever wondered about the minutiae of family living in small-town Japan, it’s all laid out here. Having said that, the scenes did seem to me to be a little old-fashioned. It’s over 30 years since I was in a Japanese family house and nothing seems to have changed. In fact the little boy with his hand-held computer game was the only real sign of modernity in the household. (The shrine to the older brother includes a Joy Division poster.) My impression from contemporary Japanese literature is that there is a difference in modern homes. Perhaps Kore-eda is purposely offering a slightly anachronistic view of family life? There is a lot of talk about what is ‘normal’. On the other hand, Ryo’s father seems to have switched from baseball to football – that seems ‘modern’ (but mother still plays pachinko).

I’m not sure why Japanese directors are so much better at making these kinds of films than directors in other countries. Is it something about the design of Japanese houses and the formalities of Japanese social behaviour? Despite the lack of overly dramatic moments, this film is riveting for its whole running time of 115 minutes. If you get a chance to see it in a cinema, grab it with both hands.

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8 Responses to “Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Japan 2008)”

  1. TV said

    I think the family house looks old fashioned like that because it’s in or near Kamakura or the Izu peninsula, which are fairly stately semi-rural areas, the kind of which tend to hold on to tradition much more than urban or suburban area in Japan. There are still lots of homes like that owned by people of the parents’ generation, but that area south west of Tokyo in particular is full of them. Actually I think the class situation means that this isn’t a shomin-geki but the more general ‘contemporary’ gendai-geki.

    BTW The very first shot, of carrots and radishes being peeled, references the film that Ozu was working on when he died (‘Daikon to Ninjin’). I guess Kore-eda felt the need to get his acknowledgment out of the way early!

    Tom

    • venicelion said

      I think I read somewhere that the house is in Yokosuka – certainly it is in Kanagawa Prefecture. I missed the first couple of minutes of the credits and didn’t see the daikon and carrots which is a shame. I can see that I need to focus more on these details. I was disappointed with the cooking meat shot – unless it was a reference to the pollution of the Japanese diet. More beans for me please and I fancy the mackerel!

      You’ll have to explain your comment about social class and the shomingeki. My feeling was that the script quite carefully keeps the family situation within the social milieu that Ozu would have recognised from the 1950s. I realise that I perhaps didn’t take enough account of the fact that this is the parent’s house and again the details (e.g. the state of the bathroom) are carefully set up to signify the gradual physical decline of the couple). Overall, I think that the family is represented in a stylised rather than social realist way. On the other hand, the film is perhaps less sentimental, especially in terms of the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, than some of the contemporary genre films in Japanese cinema.

  2. tv said

    I agree that meal did look really good! The meat was Char sui http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Char_siu – I don’t think it signified the pollution of diet; it isn’t thought of a Japanese, but is relatively ‘traditional’, and after tempura was originally Portuguese etc.

    Re. Shomingeki; this translates literally as ‘stories of everyday people’ and would tend toward working class situations (as in Ozu’s films of the 1930s and 1940s). You’re right, Still Walking is entirely in keeping with the social milieu of many of Ozu’s late films (The End of Summer, Equinox Flower, An Autumn Afternoon), but I don’t think this is shomingeki. I’m not sure whether there’s a genre term that deals with middle class situations (there may be one?). ‘Gendaigeki’ is actually far too general a term, used more to distinguish from jidaigeki.

    The cracked bathroom was a really nice touch. Made me think that there were some problems which the father couldn’t bring himself to deal with.

    This is one of the very best Japanese films of the last ten years for me. I think Kore-eda is a serious talent.

    Tom

    • venicelion said

      Agreed, Kore-eda on this evidence is a seriously talented filmmaker. I have his other UK-released films somewhere and must find time to watch them.

      I think that we must be discussing a different meat dish. My reference to pollution was a joke (as someone who eats only fish and vegetables, I’ve always admired the traditional Japanese diet). The meat cooking in the film as I remember it was not being roasted or slow-broiled and it wasn’t pork as the Wikipedia page you quoted suggested. It looked more like chunks of fatty beef being fried (and turned over as we watched). I’ll have to look up some recipes. Perhaps what you described was in another scene that I didn’t notice?

      Back to the shomengeki. I don’t think that all of Ozu’s films in the post-war period feature ‘middle-class’ families as such. I know my obsession with nuanced class divisions is very UK-centric, but I do think that it is important to distinguish between families where the main character is a brewery-owner or a business-man in Central Tokyo and those where he is a doctor with a home clinic. Another way to distinguish them might be the films in which characters frequent kabuki shows and up-market bars and restaurants compared with those where eating at home and sneaking out to the corner bar and the pachinko parlour is the norm. Of course, in some films, characters do both and this signifies crossing class (and possibly modernity) lines for narrative effect. My emphasis on lower middle-class life for the shomingeki is matched by Keiko McDonald’s in her book ‘Reading a Japanese Film’. In discussing Ozu she sees some of the later films as creating middle-class and ‘upper middle-class’ settings. She also refers to another Shochiku genre, the kateigeki – ‘family film’ or ‘home film’. I’ve only found one or two other references to this term.

      Clearly, I need to research shomingeki much more.

  3. tv said

    “I don’t think that all of Ozu’s films in the post-war period feature ‘middle-class’ families as such.” – quite right; some later Ozus (Late Autumn, Floating Weeds, Ohayo) divert from his general tendency to move toward middle class settings.

    If the shot you’re thinking of looked like this: http://roseofsharonyokok.blogspot.com/2009/10/blog-post_25.html then it’s definitely Char sui/’チャーシュー’ that Mum’s making; the wikipedia entry mentions boiling, but in Japan it’s common to make it by boiling fatty pork (and usually eggs) in water, soy sauce, sugar and spices – it’s that version they’re making in the film.

  4. Harry said

    The Criterion Collection release of this film includes a small booklet that has the recipes featured in the film.

    It was a pleasant surprise!

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