STILL WALKING (Aruitemo aruitemo) B Japan (114 mi) 2008 d: Hirokazu Kore-eda
“I think my parents would have been more comfortable if they were more like characters in an Ozu film,” Mr. Kore-eda said. A more relevant Japanese master, “in terms of a worldview I feel much closer to,” he added, is Mikio Naruse, whose characters are usually more openly anguished: “His movies really understand that humans are flawed creatures, and he makes no judgment against them.”
—Hirokazu Kore-eda from a New York Times interview by Dennis Lim, August 16, 2009, Hirokazu Kore-eda's 'Still Walking' - Familial Loss and Proustian ...
Japan excels at making rhythm of life family drama films that capture the naturalistic intimacy of being there in the moment, character studies centered exclusively on a family and their various travails with one another. Directors Yasujirō Ozu (1903 – 1963) and Mikio Naruse (1905 – 1969) are the standard bearers in this respect, raising ordinary living to exclusive heights never before attained simply by the way it’s being filmed, observing objectively, without an ounce of sentimentality, using a poetic eye that places a value in accumulating meticulous detail. In this way, characters soon become known to an audience that begins to identify with them, feeling what they feel. While that is the method by the conscientiously precise Kore-eda here as well, chronicling a day in the life of an ordinary family, he nonetheless breaks from Ozu’s formal home drama structure, providing a more spirited free-for-all conveying multiple perspectives from different characters, each seemingly going their own way, finding their own natural rhythm, with kids constantly intruding and interrupting, where this film has its share of singular moments, but much of the impact is short-lived and fails to sustain itself over the long haul through strong character development, as there are few appealing characters, where exposed flaws and long standing personal resentments are just as much an inherent attribute as likability, maintaining a similarity to conventional family dramas from the 50’s to the 70’s that accentuate a post-war normality of a rising middle class, revealing potential economic pitfalls in the modern era, yet falling short of discovering something new. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien went to Japan to make his own tribute to Ozu and produced the luminous CAFÉ LUMIÈRE (2003), which is basically a quiet contemplation of everyday life, but is given transcendent qualities through his ravishingly beautiful rendition of signature Ozu shots, such as laundry hanging on a line or a passing trolley with connecting lines reaching out into the sky while off in the distance trains might be seen quietly passing by. A neglected personal favorite is Naomi Kawase’s SUZAKU (1997), among the quietest films on record, but one that perfectly balances the fragile beauty of a rural mountainside village with the haunting, yet fleeting memories of those that inhabit the region, showing how life and death are interconnected by deep seeded memories that have a profound and lasting effect. And perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise was Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea (Cha no aji) (2004), easily one of the most brilliantly imaginative of all the family dramas, not afraid to resort to animé, surrealism, or magical realism, splicing together life segments on each family member, slowly developing a composite portrait of each one, praising to the hilt their own unique individuality, which ultimately helps define and distinguish themselves in the world around them. More recently, cult director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s TÔKYÔ SONATA (2008) subversively challenges a nation’s conformity by altering small details in the family routine that lead to an unraveling of the prevailing social order leaving one precariously close to the horror genre, or a major catastrophe. In very special ways, all these films creatively play a significant part in revealing a national identity.
Made the same year as Olivier Assayas’s SUMMER HOURS (2008), among the more highly acclaimed films in each director’s career, both known for their novelesque style, with both films involving three generations of family, using objects and interiors as psychological mirrors, linking memory association with personal identity. Kore-eda doesn’t do anything wrong here, but he doesn’t do enough to redefine the genre or challenge it in any significant way, as he has done with every one of his more uncompromising and strikingly original earlier films. Instead it’s clear his intentions were to make a more audience-friendly film, ruffling a few feathers with family clashes or moments of stark candor, but otherwise treading a safe line right down the middle that’s likely to offend few and capture the interest of fewer still except those ardent cinephiles that revere Ozu. It’s a variation on a theme, something like Bertrand Tavernier’s A SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY (1984), where at the grandparent family home, their children and grandchildren pay them the requisite visit, which can be told lovingly, like Tavernier, with all the sunny charm of a Renoir painting, graceful in a classical style, or with the acid rancor of Arnaud Desplechin’s A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008), placing the family dysfunction front and center. Typically in these films, the action is mostly confined to meals and family conversation, offering spontaneous moments of cooking and cleaning, but mostly it’s sitting down together to eat and talk, usually with drinks, all activities taking place in and around the house, as they do here, happily munching on watermelon or grandmother’s deep-fried corn tempura on a hot summer’s day. The singular event that gathers this family together is the commemoration of an event that occurred 15 years previously, when the eldest son drowned while saving the life of another kid. While they still have a grown son and daughter that come visit, they lost their chosen child whose memory continues to haunt all of them. 2nd eldest son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is an unemployed art restorer who can never live up to his elder brother’s memory, and is viewed as something of a failure as he doesn’t follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor. Despite making a rare visit, his father barely speaks to him. Ryota’s wife (Yui Natsukawa) has a young son from a previous marriage who is clearly ignored by this family as well. Their own daughter (You) continually talks up the idea of her family moving back into the home to take care of her elderly parents, but they’re nearly exhausted already by her all-too brief visits, as she lugs her children in tow that have a way of loudly disturbing the empty stillness they’re used to. The elderly couple themselves spend the day bickering at one another, where the wife (Kirin Kiki) freely speaks her mind, usually at the expense of someone else, as she gossips and snipes and backstabs without the least bit of concern for the consequences. This is her family and she can say as she pleases. Her husband (Yoshio Harada), meanwhile, endures his wife’s complaining by offering a few choice complaints of his own before gruffly stalking off to the privacy of his study. In this way the world goes around as people are a product of their own accumulated habits.
If there are any surprises in STILL WALKING, it is in their all-too-brief revelations, such as an awkwardly uncomfortable invitation to the person the eldest son saved, who couldn’t be more embarrassed and ill at ease, yet it’s an invitation he can’t refuse, seemingly punished for living while their beloved son died, invited to remind the whole family of their own grievous discomfort, revealed quite randomly out of nowhere, happening in a split second, and then the moment is gone, where if you blinked, you missed it. Yet these discoveries reverberate throughout their lifetimes, as couples refuse to forgive their partners for certain misgivings, or children overreact to the authority of their parents and grumble about certain inequities they may attempt to change, spending their lifetime in a futile effort to work out family differences and make things better, but after decades of having little success, they eventually forget what they were fighting about in the first place, as their parent’s age and their proximity to death changes everything. The film does an excellent job of capturing these minute moments that tend to magnify in time, that were barely paid attention to when they occurred, such as the lazy way that family members overlook what’s happening to others as they get so wrapped up in their own lives. As a miniature dysfunctional family, this one shows why it’s so hard to get them all back together again, as they’re all such incessantly self-centered individuals. These candid remarks are surprising, but effortlessly real, where the grandkids barely notice and continue to prance around in their own self-absorbed universe where desert is usually the highpoint of the day. The film makes no attempt to get at the root of these family tiffs, or offer any sense of growth, but each time someone rubs up against them, it’s like a fissure that continually splits keeping them worlds apart. The subtlety is commendable, but there are no life altering moments, no crescendos, no dramatic urgency, and very little drama at all, which is why it’s so easy to miss these signs in real life. In a film, where everything is condensed into 90 minutes or so, it’s easier to figure out, especially when the director allows the audience to see what the characters themselves are missing, but in real time, life is harder to configure when potential life-altering moments disappear in the urgency of routine priorities, seemingly lost forever, only to reappear at funerals when guilt is a harsh reminder. While it’s obviously a highly personal work, written, directed, and edited by Kor-eda, coming soon after the death of his own mother, nursing very palpable personal guilt, filled with lingering regrets about promises made that never came to fruition, it nonetheless has his unmistakable imprint of modesty, restraint, and self-assured direction, showing a keen intelligence and a lack of sentiment along with an eye for detail, but unfortunately underwhelming results, mostly due to the insipid guitar music used throughout as well as the failure to dramatically connect in any meaningful way with any of the characters. Yet what’s cleverly intriguing is the parallel way random thoughts or small bits of family lore are passed on through generations while at the same time interjecting visual cues from Ozu’s TOKYO STORY (1953), including a panoramic landscape shot overlooking the tightly congested suburban rooftops with a view of the sea in the distance, while a passing train is clearly evident, all recognizable cinematic reference points from an earlier era.