Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking opens with a simple conversation between an elderly mother and her adult daughter as they prepare a meal. "Radishes are genius" the mother says to the daughter. Mother of three, grandmother of two and housewife to a now-retired doctor, Toshiko has obviously spent some time pondering the genius of the radish. Unlike her daughter, who looks as though she is peeling a radish for the first time in her life. It is simple observations like these—both spoken and unspoken—that fills the no-frill frames of this unassuming, yet poignant, family drama.
Still Walking is a portrait of a family whose shared history is revealed in the day they spend together. The occasion is the anniversary of Junpei's death. Junpei is eldest son to Toshiko and Shohei and brother to Chinami and Ryota. Junpei drown saving a boy over 10 years ago. The event has driven an irrevocable wedge between family members despite the bond that exists in their loss. Junpei was the son who was to follow in the footsteps of his father and continue on the family medical practice. At the center of the film is Ryota, the self-exiled younger son who continues to live in the shadow of his now-dead brother. The visit is a rare one for Ryota, who is bringing his new wife and step-son to meet his parents for the first time.
The scenario is a familiar one: a family comes together and revels its dysfunctions one by one. But Kore-eda gives Still Walking an air of unexpectedness and discovery, which seems to be present even among the characters themselves. The most kindhearted exposes her cruelty, and the most hardhearted shows his tenderness—but they do so secretly, in private moments of dramatic irony. Within the small house, each scene is infused with a din of moving bodies and suppressed emotions. Still Walking is a film of careful observation. Kore-eda's meticulously composed camera not only observes, but scrutinizes. But it is not all family drama. The film is visually beautiful, with all its lush greens and cool blues.
At the heart of the film, Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved who is now a young adult, pays an obligatory annual visit. The scene is undeniably awkward. Toshiko is fussing around him like a good host; Shohei, the patriarch, is facing the other way with his back to him; and the rest of the family is sitting around the table patronizing him. Yoshio is the epitome of a failure. He is unkempt, overweight and unemployed, and the family seems to take pleasure in looking down upon him, except for Ryota. The wayward son take the mocking a little too personally, and, in the heat of the moment, speaks ill of the dead and implies that Junpei, had he still been alive, may too have become a failure. Everyone pauses and even the air seems to fall silent. We are left wondering is everyone is stunned by Ryota's slander against Junpei or if they are stunned by the notion that Junpei could have been anything less than perfect. It's a pregnant pause that leaves almost as quickly as it came. It is a centerpiece sequence which takes in all that precedes it, and conversely, from which everything that follows flows. Everything that comes before is somewhat expected; everything that come after is somewhat...unexpected. That is not to say that anything unexpected happens, its just that events are a little less predictable and a little more genuine.
Contrary to how I am making it sound, Still Walking is not a riddle. It's a poem that is worthy of the legacy left by Japanese masters Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Forget Neo-Neorealism, let's talk about Neo-mono no aware. Kore-eda has made a film with an empathy toward the ephimeral that would make both directors proud. The film shines with a gentle and slightly bitter view on life. Kore-eda has made a career out of being grandly subtle and elusively honest. Taking on death in After Life, the Aum sarin attack in Distance, abandon children in Nobody Knows, an unskilled swordsman in the period film Hana, he is able to pull the most sublime films out of the most interesting subjects. Still Walking is no less exalted, or maybe even more so. There is no one who doesn't understand family and who wouldn't appreciate Still Walking.
Hirokazu Kore-eda recently won best director for Still Walking at the Asian Film Awards. Look for Still Walking at a film festival near you (but unfortunately not MSPIFF.) Still Walking is available on an expensive Region 2 DVD with English subtitles.