Still Walking (2009)
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, Kirin Kiki, Yoshio Harada
MPAA rating: Not rated
Run Time: 114 minutes
The writer, director, and editor of Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda, has stated that the death of both of his parents in recent years inspired him to make this movie. The film, however, is not about how elderly parents died but how they lived, and how perfectly ordinary lives are not really so nondescript when they are ours to experience.
The story covers only a day and a half of 40-year old son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) visiting his parents. He is accompanied by his relatively new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), who had been widowed, and her 10-year old son from that previous marriage, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Ryota’s parents, retired doctor Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and housewife Toshiko Yokoyama (Kirin Kiki) have already been joined by their daughter Chinami (singer/actress YOU, who has a voice like Carol Kane), her funny but spacey husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi), and their two children.
The impetus for the visit is the anniversary of Ryota’s brother Junpei’s death, an accident that has forever scarred the Yokoyamas. Even a dozen years after Junpei’s passing, he is still the constant topic of conversation to Ryota’s displeasure. Junpei was following in his father’s footsteps to becoming a doctor and would have inherited the family clinic. Kyohei always saw Junpei as his heir and Ryota as the family outcast who pursued an occupation in art restoration. Now Ryota hides from his parents that he is unemployed.
Kyohei greets Ryota and his family gruffly, and later he insults Yukari by saying widows with children are hard to marry off. She humbly takes it in stride and dissipates the tension with humor by saying how lucky she is then that Ryota would have her. Further mitigating the embarrassment, Chinami tells her no, Ryota is the one who is lucky to have her. And so it goes during the visit.
While Kore-eda places the main emphasis on the friction between Ryota and his parents and their expectations of him, perhaps without meaning to, the film comes most alive when dealing with Ryota’s stepson and wife. Part of this may be that Shohei Tanaka and Yui Natsukawa give the best, most subtle, and delicate performances, but they are also strangers being thrown into familial relationships that are new to them. That makes them the closest thing to us and they share the audience’s point of view in getting to know the Yokoyamas. Atsushi explores the strange new spaces of the house as we would, and anyone familiar with getting acquainted with their in-laws can sympathize with Yukari.
Still Walking has some of the expected scenes – characters perusing through old photographs, a parent asking Ryota if he’s going to have children, the family visiting Junpei’s grave, and as family matriarch, Toshiko spends a large portion of the movie in the kitchen expressing love through food and family recipes (in this case corn tempura), as is often the case in Asian cultures and many others too. But the film is also filled with insightful details revealing nuances of human respect and dignity. Ryota notices a grab bar in the bathroom that was not there before, now needed due to his father’s greater frailty. Yukari asks Atsushi to hide from Ryota’s parents that he calls his stepfather “Ryo” instead of “father.” The film is filled with people saying things that hurt other people’s feelings without really meaning to.
Because Kore-eda is Japanese and making a film about family, the instant point of comparison many Westerners will make is with the great Yasujiro Ozu, but Still Walking is not really like Ozu in its rhythms or its style. It’s not even like Kore-eda’s own masterpiece, Maborosi, which, with its long takes often in long shot, is reminiscent of the Taiwanese masters he admires so much – Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. Rather Still Walking has a fairly conventional style and is only an art film due to its minimalist narrative. Its style, always steady but also lackluster is the movie’s greatest deficiency. The film simmers but never comes to a boil.
It does have its high points however. One is when Toshiko brings out an old record from 1970 that obviously means very much to her. That it is such a trivial archaic pop culture artifact contributes to its poignancy. This music from another era is provocative of an entire history between the elderly couple to which we’re never privy. This mystery is haunting in giving us the sense of just how much of other people we will never know. The film asks us to know our parents just a little more.