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Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking

A simple family as the nucleus of life

Still Walking has been finding its way into my Blu-ray player with great regularity for years, becoming my single most watched film. A simple family portrait capturing a single summer day, yet at the same time reflecting an entire life.

Written by

Lónsi

Sep 16, 2022

© trigon-film.org

In this, we closely get to follow Ryota, his wife Yukari and their son Atsushi from her past marriage, as they make their way to Ryota’s parents’ home. The occasion is the anniversary of his brother's death, for which the entire family gathers.

For all its simplicity, each viewing reveals many particular details. Despite the cultural distinctions in the film, Koreeda creates a deeply universal view of a family. Nostalgia hovering over the entire film as well as an overall sense of life and death, of yearnings and regrets.

To a large extent, the film is shown from the perspective of the protagonist. Ryota—a man in his forties looking for a job. He is the younger son whose grief over the death of his elder brother is accompanied by the constant feeling that he has an untouchable example in him, suffering from never being able to be the son to his parents that they considered his brother would become.

This is demonstrated in particular by the remarkable and easily to be underestimated acting by Hiroshi Abe, who embodies a certain mediocrity with his incomparable presence, which is a recurring theme in the film. Occasional spoken and nonverbal reactions when the older brother is praised to the skies testify to his frustration, but also show that the brother has also been elevated to a delusional ideal who becomes a symbol for the family of what could have been. Out of shame, he pretends to his parents that he is a conservator of old paintings in order to look respectable to his father.

© trigon-film.org

“I’m less interested in death itself than in people whose lives are touched by it”

— Hirokazu Koreeda

A moment in time as it unfolds

Within the one day it covers, Koreeda paints a meticulous portrait of a families’ inner life. Through a richness of detail and careful observation, Koreeda captures the human being behind the role of a father, mother and son throughout the film. Understated yet distinct, he frames each family member as a different phase of life, thereby revealing underlying, unspoken yearnings. With their burdens, each has to move on with their lives. With the respective loss of a brother, a son and a father, a common link and continuity between the generations emerges. While at the same time Koreeda also highlights the change in a person when they become a father or a mother. In this way, Ryota’s confrontation with his father is no longer just that of a son, but shifted from a father to a father in perspective.

It is a very documentary look that takes place here. Characterised by the very few camera movements, which besides the family theme also bring up comparisons to fellow director Yasujiro Ozu. The similar extended shots of a scene, even after the characters leave the frame, create an intimate sense of scale to the surroundings giving the house itself a certain presence of life.

A scene that stands out for me each time is as beautiful as modest. At the beginning of the film, the daughter asks her father to buy some milk as he is about to leave. Ignoring the request, he closes the door behind him. While the daughter is getting quite annoyed, the mother next to her while they are both preparing a meal merely smiles, saying that despite his pension, he still sees himself as a noble doctor who doesn't want to be seen in public with a plain shopping bag.

These small remarks with the mother's slight chuckle exemplify a kind of love that is so rarely seen in films. Not a particularly romantic form of love, and yet an honest sense of intimate belonging that grows solely over a lifetime.

Food and cooking in general have a major significance here. As a cultural characteristic, meals in many parts of Asia are shared from different plates with everyone around the table, engaging in a lot of chatter. Dining unites people here who are deeply segregated and otherwise have little in common. This also involves social expectations and norms, which play a significant part, especially in Japan as well as in the generation of the parents. While defiantly standing up for having only been a housewife, the mother prepares unpretentious middle-class meals that would not be considered appropriate for a doctor’s wife. Nevertheless, her simple dishes reflects a sentiment of home for everyone in the family, when the smell alone is reminiscent of the better times, back when, and as always, everything was worse and yet better.

© trigon-film.org

“[…] the simple dialogues also contain underlying concerns that the characters are not able to express directly”

Human weaknesses in the spotlight

Compared to many family dramas, Still Walking is neither melodramatic nor sentimental, despite the underlying themes. Koreeda puts a lot of emphasis on the characters being lifelike. In order to do this, no person is truly malicious or without flaws. The mother, for example, portrayed by the wonderful Kirin Kiki, is a lovable, quirky mother whose grief for her son also harbours a secretly darker side. It’s never an overly sentimental-idealised view that is depicted for any character, with the exception of the deceased son that is never shown.

Still, the film has a lightness to it, which is also due to the nature of the dialogues. Viewers always have just enough context to be able to follow the conversations. Through this and the mundanity of the conversations, they feel natural and real, also because we never experience them from the beginning but in the midst of them. Yet at the same time, the simple dialogues also contain underlying concerns that the characters are not able to express directly. Such as when the callous father briefly breaks out of his stoicism to ask his son and grandson why they shouldn't go to the football stadium together one day, there is a certain bittersweet note when the answer is just a "Sure, someday …". A someday that slips out so easily, but in which so much regret can be contained afterwards.

A further intriguing theme that is outlined here is the question of what role blood relations play in the definition of family. Koreeda explores this question in his later films Like Father, Like Son and Shopflifters which I highly recommend as well.

The common comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu, notably to this film, fall short of Koreeda's own visions. There is something very raw about his characters, which exposes their selfish and unpleasant nature, becoming the mirror into our deepest selves. Still Walking is an exceptionally poignant film about the subtleties of human nature. Its excellence lies in the exposure of the unexpressed, the empathetic contemplation of relationships, and its mastery of how simple and ordinary Koreeda is in portraying all of it.

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