'Still Walking', the stunning new film from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, begins with a premise so stale and overused that to read a plot synopsis of the movie is discouraging enough to prevent you from seeing it. A family reuniting for the anniversary of a loved one's death is nothing new in the world of cinema, and American TV movies have been churning out cloying, sickeningly saccharine variations on it for the past fifty years. Yet here is a film so refreshing and truthful that it restores your faith (almost completely) in the domestic drama.
The similarities to Ozu are obvious; had this been directed by him, it might stand quite comfortably alongside his masterpieces. The comparisons that have been made between the great Japanese director and Koreeda are fully deserved. Like Ozu, he makes extensive and inventive use of a stationary camera, always arranging his shots to perfection: often, after a moment of discussion or 'drama', we are taken away from the characters and the camera lingers, providing a seemingly superfluous shot. This was an Ozu trademark, and it is used with reverence here; at times the camera focuses on seemingly trivial things, such as broken bath tiles or a flower in a glass, pale in the twilight. It allows us to digest what we have seen. The detail in his shots is quietly breathtaking: Koreeda has an eye for family meals and rituals in particular, and these scenes are handled masterfully.
The film follows Ryota, his wife and his stepson as they return to his parents' home on the anniversary of his elder brother Junpei's death. It is gradually revealed that he was drowned while rescuing a young boy, now grown older. In Ozu's 'Tokyo Story', it was the parents who were the caring couple becoming victims of their children's' greed and selfishness in their old age; here, it is the parents who bicker, both with themselves and their children, making petty insinuations due to their outdated ideals and the tragedy they have suffered; it is their living children who suffer as a result. Yet there are no earth shattering arguments among smashed crockery, and very rarely a raised voice; by the time we meet these people, the arguments are past, only to be replaced by stifled politeness and bitter mutterings. They have settled into a routine; it is at once their refuge and their weapon, their greatest ailment but their only means of communication. If it weren't for the fact that it was Ryota's duty to return home each year on the anniversary of his brother's death, he might never return at all: his father quietly chastises him for never calling his mother, to which Ryota's reply is that she always complains when he does.
How wise this film is in comparison to so many of its counterparts, where oversimplified, long standing feuds are rectified in a single visit! This film is far too mature to fall into that trap. It contains layer upon layer of characterisation: we get the sense that what we are seeing is a real family, not a TV cardboard cut out. Their issues are buried deep in the past, and as Koreeda notices, it is almost always the tiny, minute details that a family argues about - often referenced briefly and indirectly. And what an abundance of these we see, some never explained; it is through these microscopic specifics that Koreeda, with delicate precision, provides insight into his characters and their lives: the fact that the old patriarch, a retired doctor, refuses to go shopping because he is too proud to be seen by his neighbours carrying a shopping bag; the fact that his wife would have preferred her son to marry a divorced woman rather that a widow. These are some of the more trivial. There are mounds to discover.
Perhaps the finest scene in the film is one in which Ryota and his mother Toshiko are talking in the kitchen together. It is nearly the end of the day and Ryota will be leaving in the morning. Earlier, in the afternoon, the boy that Junpei saved when he drowned visited to pay his respects. We learn that he does this every year, as Toshiko always invites him, and it is painful to notice the subtle ways in which Toshiko, with a sympathetic smile and polite tone, gently treats him with derision and belittles him. In the evening, Ryota and Toshika are making small talk about a sumo wrestler. The way in which that small talk gradually leads to Toshiko's painful admission of why she invites the boy every year is so subtle it is almost indiscernible; but what an honest, heart wrenching, cruel admission it is. There is no background music, and the camera, stationary, provides a close up of the side of Toshiko's face, downcast, as she speaks. It's an amazing scene.
And when the twenty four hour visit is over, very little is rectified. Meaningless promises are made, resentments still fester, they are still awkward with each other. These people are desperate, and as we begin to learn, they want desperately to reach out to each other. But it is too awkward, and the honesty it would require would be far too painful. They are distinctly human, ignoring the problems and running away. And then, of course, it's too late, and all that's left is the broken pieces and the disappointment.
What a sad, meditative film this is, handled with such astounding tenderness and compassion. But there are bittersweet moments, and even hope is to be found here! Far from being simple and cloying, this is an extraordinarily complex gem of a film, containing emotional truths and nuances that even the longest essay couldn't fully disclose. Words just can't be found to explain some things... and what a mess that fact makes of their lives!