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.