With its studied focus on strained familial ties and generational differences, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s home drama Still Walking has been compared to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Its simple premise even serves as a contemporary reworking of Tokyo Story (1953) with children making the journey from the city to visit their parents rather than vice versa. However, this is not a tribute to the master observer of Japanese cinema but a further exploration of the abiding themes that have reverberated through Kore-eda’s work since his haunting first feature Maborosi (1995).
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is an unemployed art restorer who has married the widowed Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and become stepfather to her child. He has never felt sufficiently respected by his parents, as his father Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) always favoured his elder son, Junpei, who drowned in an accident fifteen years earlier. Hiroshi takes his wife and stepson out of the city to visit his parents for the first time, an annual gathering which involves a visit to Junpei’s grave. While familial relationships remain polite on the surface, there is an underlying tension to the proceedings which makes Ryota feel that these visits are something of a chore or even an ordeal; his father is a retired doctor who is reluctant to accept that his professional expertise is no longer needed and has never come to terms with the loss of his favourite son, while his mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) expresses doubts about her son’s marriage to a widow.
There are echoes of After Life (1998) in that Still Walking is very much an attempt by the director to recapture memory. He reportedly embarked on the lm following his mother’s death, which brought about a deep sense of regret, and Still Walking seeks to revisit the recent past by reconstructing a family gathering that takes place over twenty-four hours. It also deals with loss, with the family in Still Walking struggling to come to terms with a tragic death that occurred fifteen years earlier, just as Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is still dealing with the loss of her partner in Maborosi and the impoverished children in Nobody Knows (2004) have to accept that they had been abandoned by their mother.
As with his earlier films, Kore-eda handles his material with the eyes and ears of a skilled documentarian; his camera maintains a detached distance so that the audience often feels as if it is eavesdropping on the family, making the subtle differences of opinion and pointed asides genuinely awkward. Kore-eda is certainly not a manipulative filmmaker, but the low-key manner with which he reveals aspects of character and familial history certainly contributes to occasional shifts in audience sympathy and identification. Ryota’s parents initially seem welcoming enough, making it difficult to understand why he is so reluctant to visit them more than once a year or why he insists that his wife should not accept the inevitable invitation to stay the night. However, the reasons for his discomfort in the family home gradually become clear as his father mourns for the son he has lost rather than embracing the one he still has, and his mother does not seem to fully accept Ryota’s stepson as part of the family. However, the most vicious example of the elderly couple’s quiet cruelty is reserved for the stranger that Junpei saved before drowning, an affable, overweight young man currently struggling to secure work in the media who is invited to the family home annually so that the bereaved parents can make him feel guilty about being alive. On their journey from the city to the suburbs, Ryota’s wife criticizes her husband’s attitude towards visiting his parents, but on their way home she concedes that it might be better if they do not spend the night next time.
While the film achieves much of its understated emotional depth from what remains unspoken, perhaps the most affecting part is Ryota’s closing voice-over. Speaking several years after the visit that we have witnessed, the matter-of-fact manner in which he summarizes his relationship with his parents in their later years suggests that they were already lost to him and that such familial occasions were simply obligatory, as much of a ritual as tending to his brother’s grave.
Still Walking may refer to the style of Ozu, but with his increasingly claustrophobic emphasis on the simmering resentment of the older generation, Kore-eda has created a unique cinematic space for the subtle and often painfully moving illustration of the barely suppressed bitterness that comes to define families that find themselves unable to move on from inexplicable tragedy.