Director: Hirokazu Koreeda | Runtime: 1h 55mins | Drama | Language: Japanese
Every year a family comes together from across Japan to commemorate a tragedy in their past. After we spend 24 hours with them, we understand their relationships, dynamics and the importance of this annual ritual.
Hirozaku Koreeda has became quite an important figure in Japanese cinema since the turn of the 21st century. He released his first non-Japanese language film in 2019 titled The Truth, and the year before arguably his career highlight with Shoplifters (2018). That being said, his back-catalogue is filled with fantastic narratives focusing on Japanese culture and life, and one of the more overlooked in it’s brilliance is 2008’s Still Walking. Much like his other works, it has a fairly simple premise but the depth comes from complex characters and intricate relationships between them.
Living at the seaside, elderly couple Kyohei and Toshiko Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada and Kirin Kiki respectively) have their fully grown children and their kids to visit; the daughter Chinami (played by actress You) is clearly closer to the parents, asking them to come live with her and her husband. We follow son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) more closely, as he brings his new wife Yukari (Yui Naksukawa) and her son as we learn the dynamic between Ryota and his new step child. It’s clear the father doesn’t fully approve of the marriage, generally quite despondent with much that Ryota says and does come as quite the stark contrast to his mothers eventual warm and hospitable nature towards Yukari and her son, thought taking some time she does begin to welcome them into the family.
The father of the family Kyohei is a former physician keeps himself busy most days by splitting his time between deliberately fastidious walks and working away in his office. There’s a constant aura of bitterness around him, and as the story unfolds we discover why he’s apparently callous towards his son – part of the beauty of Still Walking is how the tragedy in the past is revealed and how it effects everyone individually. The mother might be welcoming to Ryota’s new wife, but she certainly has her reservations about marrying a widow. Koreeda writes with an elegance, blending the narrative with each character personality with ease, everyone has a role to play in this years anniversary, even the older sister’s husband, one of the more minor roles.
It’s a deeply empathetic view of a person whose life was overwhelmed by one day, and one that has caused a tear in his relationship with the rest of his family.
Most of the conflict comes from Kyohei and his issues with being unable to move on from the past. He habours resentment for Ryota, mostly around his decision to follow a career in art restoration instead of the family business in medicine, even going so far as arguing over trying to convince the new step son into following Kyohei’s footsteps. This isn’t to say that the grandfather is the bad guy in this story, as we learn that he took the tragedy worse than anyone and has to live with the heart break of being unable to move on. It’s a deeply empathetic view of a person whose life was overwhelmed by one day, and one that has caused a tear in his relationship with the rest of his family.
As a contrasting view to the father and son, the mother and daughter have a much better and closer relationship, most of their tension is Chinami trying to convince her mother to let her and her husband move in with them. It’s another case of the over politeness the entire family all shares, though in this maternal relationship there is far less resentment. Toshiko clearly doesn’t want to move but struggles to tell her daughter directly, subtle tones of her feeling belittled ring through their conversations. She feels slightly insulted by the notion of being unable to provide for herself and Kyohei, Chinami not linking this to the feeling of guilt towards her parents past. It’s not a major thread throughout, but it’s an example of the elegance of the relationships woven between all of the characters and how excellently Koreeda writes his script.
Though Koreeda is well known for his writing the camerawork is as nuanced as ever. Like many of his films, there’s plenty of space between many of the cuts with a still camera or very little movement, allowing the actors to just flow in the scene. Many of the conversations are during menial moments, cooking and having dinner, a wash in the bath, walks along the beach, but its a beautiful accompaniment to the naturalistic dialogue and situations playing out before us.
For those used to the drama’s of the west, UK and USA in particular, it may seem strange that there are no outbursts towards the end. There’s no large emotional payoff of Ryota screaming at his father or Toshiko expressing her opinions of her daughters lack of belief in her parents independence, instead the family parts with simple but effective narration, and a poignant sequence to round out the runtime. It’s incredibly moving made more touching by how real the depiction of the family is, maybe some would have the outburst, but many wouldn’t bring their emotions to the surface creating a more introspective but anti-theatrical result. For some this maybe too modest, but for others Still Walking is a stunning, graceful look a life through the eyes of a family dealing with – but not defined by – their grief.