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(Still Walking, Japan - 2008)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi
Genre: Drama
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda from his story
Cinematography: Yutaka Yamasaki
Composer: Gonchichi

Yasujiro Ozu was the master of utilizing the simplicity of familial life in rural Japan with the inner turmoil the close (even if normally separated by geographical distances) relationships between the generations inherently entail. Though set in modern day Japan (the very recent past), Hirokazu Koreeda has largely transported us back to the feel of post WWII Japan through the yearly visit to the elderly parents house to honor their son Junpei, who drowned while saving another boy. In many ways, the times a very similar because Japan’s economic woes have left everyone underemployed and wondering what the future holds for them. The major difference between Ozu & Koreeda is, while Koreeda can match Ozu’s depiction of generational conflict through leisurely paced everyday routine such as preparing meals, he ultimately lacks his warmth and good humor.

It’s hardly fair to compare anyone to the great master, and Koreeda has done a lot more than merely rehash and mimic. What elevates his family drama well above the plethora of mediocrities released by his contemporaries is he makes us believe he isn’t outwardly seeking conflict. In other words, while most directors are building their film around a series of snide remarks, arguments, and even fights, mixing a series of scenes that are either sentimental, showy, or (emotionally if not physically) violent, Koreeda’s characters seem to genuinely try to, or at least wish they could, pass the day in as pleasantly and non confrontational a manner as possible. Of course, they all have their disappointments that have left them bitter and petty, but because the film evolves organically through a series of ordinary “holiday” events we still believe they are there to try to enjoy a good meal and a nice nature stroll, even if only to avoid the truth and the seriousness of their differences and simply survive another 24 hours of remembering the dear departed.

The striking characteristics of Still Walking are it’s delicacy and complexity. It is not particularly confrontational, yet we understand all the problems through a strong emotional undercurrent. There is a great deal of anger, resentment, and mostly disappointment bubbling just beneath the surface, but the children are oblivious to it, and the adults can’t change it so they simply have to tolerate it.

The story is not exactly original, but the characters are complex, multi dimensional, and true to life. At the heart of Still Walking lies the age old problem of the remaining children never being able to live up to the perpetually unfulfilled potential of the lost child. The withdrawn father Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada) largely resents his surviving younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) for not following in his footsteps as a doctor, which of course the firstborn Junpei would have done. We get the sense that Ryota could not satisfy Kyohei if he became Prime Minister, so the fact that the 40-year-old is failing to find work restoring paintings is hardly in his favor. The Ryota character is particularly interesting not because he seems to have lived his life with the weight of these expectations upon his shoulders, but because he cannot free himself from them despite never having any personal interest in fulfilling them and generally keeping his distance from those who weigh him down.

Acceptance is one of the key themes, though particularly expressed through the story of Ryoto’s new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa). Her and her son Atsushi (Shoehi Tanaka) are that much more outsiders because Yukari’s first husband died, so now the family is to put the hopes for their future in a grandson who isn’t a blood relative.

I truly appreciate the unhurried nature and long lost sense of the simplicity Koreeda restores to the what is and what could have been family drama. While it’s true Still Walking lacks the mysterious and haunting qualities of his previous work and is not as unique or original as Maborosi or Nobody Knows, it’s not so much a departure as one might think. I mean, in the end, they are sort of companion pieces dealing with the effects of a key relationship with Maboroshi and Nobody Knows both dealing with the absense, while in Still Walking he’s forcing the characters to survive their rare presence. The fact that he’s not only been able to tell his story in a different manner, but to do something that at least warrants comparison to Ozu is actually quite an accomplishment.



* Copyright 2009 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *