Still Walking

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s unassuming Japanese family drama Still Walking opens, like so many Asian films, with images of food being prepared. A lavish meal is assembled in a small kitchen by the elderly Tosiko (Kirin Kiki) and her young daughter Chinami (the monosyllabically named Japanese cult actress You). They are getting ready to host their son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his sweet new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and her young son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), the first time he has visited since he got married. Rightly or wrongly, Ryota believes his taciturn father Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor, disapproves of his marriage to a widowed mother and despairs of his chances to find a career as an art restorer.

At the same time, Chinami and her dopey, always-smiling salesman husband are hoping to move into the spare room, a proposal that her mother finds less than appealing. She is settled in her ways, tending to her husband and their garden. The already tense family gathering is made more uncomfortable by falling around the anniversary of the death of the family’s eldest son Junpei, a doctor like his father, who drowned while saving another man’s life a couple of years before. Junpei’s absence haunts the film like a ghost, particularly for Ryota who believes his parents would have preferred that he had been the one to die.

Like the recent Departures, Still Walking is a film about coping with grief through repetition and ritual. Some, like anointing a gravestone with water, are benign, but the other ceremonies that have built up around the tragic death are more sinister. From a cast of talented actors, Kirin Kiki stands out as the blunt and bickering grandmother. She is superb in every scene, her quick hands providing the family with delicate edible treats and her equally quick tongue providing the film with its best moment as she explains the malevolent thinking behind her façade of kindness to the boy her dead son saved. “I'm not cruel,” she tells her son, “It’s normal”.

There are moments throughout that recall the Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu; lengthy, floor-level domestic still-lives and delicate images of the colourful garden that surrounds the house. The tone, like Ozu’s, is melancholic, tense and muted. At the heart of the film is the dining table, where the family eat, bicker, gossip and, slowly, unburden themselves. The story, which takes place over a single day and night, builds through an accretion of tiny details, oppressive silences and muttered asides, fleeting glances and fluttering gestures. Conversations begin at one point and, almost imperceptibly, conclude at another, some way distant. The root of the drama is revealed obliquely, a slow simmer of long-held grievances that never quite boils over. Restraint, in the end, wins out, but this grimly-held control only highlights the bright flashes of realistic emotion scattered all the way through what is a captivating film.

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