What’s remarkable about Still Walking, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s seventh feature film and one every bit as sensitive as his previous triumphs After Life (1998) and Nobody Knows (2004), is that the familiar comes across as fresh. Despite recycling potential clichés — the grouchy elderly father, the disenfranchised second son — Kore-eda imbues the story with such specificity, tactility and humanity that yet another movie about a dysfunctional family reunion becomes a cinematic tone poem.
Though the director cites the works of Japanese master Mikio Naruse as a reference for his film’s visual geography, the repeated shot of a train passing in the distance immediately recalls Yasujirō Ozu’s 1953 classic Tokyo Story. There are other similarities to Ozu in this Yokohama story, such as the static, carefully composed shots of a person or a flower arrangement, and the barely suppressed family tensions. Yet, there are subversions as well. Inspired by the death of his parents, Kore-eda crafts the Yokoyama family elders as stubborn, petty and harsh — far from an Ozu-esque portrait of an older generation readily accepting its fate. Patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) is an embittered retiree who reads the newspaper at the dinner table, only to inject an occasional sidelong insult under his breath. Grandma Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, superb in every frame) isn’t any softer. Her passive-aggressive cruel streak — initially cute while she grates radishes during the film’s opening scene — grows darker and festers, eventually providing the film with its biggest, maleficent jolt: “I’m not cruel,” she tells her son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the unfortunate adult child at the center of this bubbling-over family conflict. “It’s normal.”
The central source of the Yokoyamas’ internal combustion — and the reason for their gathering — is the loss of the eldest son, Junpei, who died 15 years earlier. As Ryota struggles to find work in painting restoration, there’s little he can do to fulfill his parents’ expectations of their dead son. He has also married a widow, an act that is a source of his parents’ thinly veiled ridicule. Older sister Chinami (portrayed by the delightfully chirpy-voiced Japanese cult figure YOU) has fared better, with two rowdy kids and a happy-go-lucky husband, who sells mobile homes.
Alternating between comic cacophony and the hushed stillness of regret, the film bristles with a sublime and loaded banality: close-ups of succulent, snapping, fried corn tempura evoke nostalgia for the family’s better moments; broken bathroom tiles lying at the edge of the tub convey neglect, irresponsibility and promises not kept; and images and sounds of children playing, just in and outside of the frame, suggest, without heavy-handedness, lost innocence.
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Kore-eda’s world often extends beyond what is obviously center stage, never losing sight of those on the fringes. Ryota’s wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), braves the day with a smile (mostly), and her pensive 10-year-old son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), provides some effective parallels: As he grapples with the loss of his father, so do Ryota and his family mourn Junpei’s death. The comparable grief climaxes, in a way — through crests might be a better word for this languorously paced film — in the form of a visiting yellow butterfly. If the symbol sounds overly romanticized, it’s not; instead, it’s just one more delicate, simple detail in this delicate, deceptively simple film. (Nuart)