A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend from church about films and how he’d recently come to appreciate films in which he could just sit back and watch life unfold. That’s probably as succinct a description as any for Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Still Walking, which follows the events and rhythms of a family over the course of 24 hours as they come together to “celebrate” the anniversary of a loved one’s death. But that description, as accurate as it might be, barely scratches the surface when it comes to the poignancy contained within Kore-Eda’s film.
It has been fifteen years since Junpei Yokoyama drowned while saving the life of another person, and his family has gathered together to mark the occasion and pay their respects. Three Yokoyama generations — parents, children, and grandchildren — crowd into a house still full of Junpei’s possessions. But as the day unfolds and the necessary ceremonies are observed, the family becomes less concerned with remembering Junpei’s death. Disagreements, disapproval, and years-old conflicts slowly simmer beneath the surface of pleasant greetings and raucous conversations over meals, and what should be a time of remembering a loved one’s life and celebrating family bonds slowly turns into something more troubled.
The Yokoyama’s second son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), is faced with double disapproval, first for not following his brother’s footsteps in pursuing a career in medicine like their father, and second for marrying a widowed mother (which is seen as bad luck). Daughter Chinami (You) fusses over her aged parents and is struggling with whether or not to move in; meanwhile, her husband’s job as an RV salesman seems to have hit a low spot. The Yokoyama patriarch, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), insists on his independence, but his proud identity as a doctor is shaken by old age and he’s become quite the curmudgeon. And finally, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), the mother, is hiding years of bitterness behind her motherly smile, hospitality, and bustling about in the kitchen.
Were Still Walking a Hollywood melodrama, we know exactly how things would play out. Tensions would build and finally give way to an explosive confrontation in the film’s final act, followed by a tearful reconciliation intended for the Oscar voters and a valuable life lesson or two for everyone, audience included. But Still Walking is most decidedly not a Hollywood film and it thankfully avoids falling into such clichéd dramatic pitfalls. Instead, we get something deeper and truer, but also more troubling and provocative.
True, there are moments where tempers flare and characters confront each other, sometimes even forcefully, e.g., when Ryota confronts his father regarding a career in medicine. But such confrontations occur within a subtler, more ambiguous context that is, dare I say, truer to how real families actually function. One of the film’s great strengths, and what makes it so involving, is just how well it captures the rhythm of large family gatherings, from the noisy greetings to the wonderful meals, from the chaos of grandchildren tearing around the house to the post-meal lulls and naps. It also captures the rhythm of family conversations, which can be full of bickering and tension one second and the next, laughter thanks to a silly memory or inside joke.
By settling into these rhythms and exploring them so fully and subtly, the characters of Still Walking achieve a level of authenticity that we don’t often see amidst “powerful performances” and “Oscar moments.” Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to Still Walking is that, after about 20 minutes or so, I forgot I was watching movie characters. Which shouldn’t be surprising, given Kore-Eda’s background as documentary filmmaker. His films have always shown both an incredible eye for detail as well as a warm, humanist care, and Still Walking is the finest example of both that I’ve seen to date from the man.
Still Walking‘s characters are not just caricatures. There is no protagonist, nor is there any antagonist. They’re human beings, capable of love and hate, generosity and selfishness, warmth and coldness. They are deeply flawed, and as such, they are deeply recognizable and deserving of our empathy. This is best seen in the character of Toshiko, the family’s matriarch.
When we first meet Toshiko, she’s preparing what is bound to be a sumptuous meal for her family. When Ryota and his new family arrive, she greets them warmly; she fusses over her grandchildren and spoils them rotten, like every good grandmother should. Furthermore, she tenderly cares for Junpei’s grave. At the same time, she can be incredibly selfish and cruel. She disapproves of Ryota’s new wife and doesn’t think of his stepson as a “real” grandchild. And in one of the movie’s most disturbing scenes, she reveals the hatred that’s been building in her soul following Junpei’s death, with most of it focused on the person that her son died saving, an overweight slob who can barely hold down a job. She’s incapable of forgiveness, and it’s eating her alive from the inside out.
But again, Kore-Eda never exploits that. He throws it out there for everyone to see and forces us to confront it and think about it. We may dislike Toshiko for being so cruel and petty at times, but the film forces us to ask if we’d be any different were we in her shoes, if a loved one were taken from us in a similar manner.
How does grief shape us? How do we remember the past without letting our memories become a prison, or worse, a hell? How do we hold onto those who are gone without ignoring those who are still here? How does our family shape us as we grow older, even after they have died? Those are the themes that Kore-Eda explores so gracefully and graciously. Again, if this were a Hollywood film, such themes would be milked for all they were worth, melodrama-wise. But Kore-Eda lets these themes drift through the film and only occasionally intensifies and crystallizes them, which proves to be the far more affecting approach.
Though Still Walking explores heavy themes, the film is neither heavy nor overwrought. Kore-Eda’s able direction, paired with beautiful cinematography and graceful editing, keeps the film light and effortless. And he uses what Roger Ebert calls “pillow shots” — scenes where the camera lingers in a room after characters have left, or focuses on seemingly random objects — to great effect, investing the film with a fitting sense of poignancy that remains long after the characters eventually return to their “normal” lives and after the credits have rolled.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on October 25, 2010.