Let it be said with certitude: once the dust and plaudits settle from this Tribeca Circus, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s modest home drama Still Walking will be its enduring memento. Or, owing to Kore-eda’s honest, subtly-bruising touch, a memento mori whose tidal affect can be traced directly to its sublime, understated blend of the tender, uncomfortable, humorous, and wistful moments that reckon to be endemic to many a family gathering.
In this microcosmic case, Kore-eda marshals the Yokoyama family for their annual remembrance of Junpei, the eldest and favorite son who died fifteen years back while saving a drowning boy. His passing may presently band them together, but it’s also what drove them toward that common divide: the elderly parents dwell in the ossified past, their offspring live with one foot towards tomorrow (especially when visiting their begetters). Thus, even if the saintly Junpei is never seen — save in inanimate objects scattered about, such as a found elementary-grade sketch by his unfit-to-fill-zōris brother and central character Ryo (Hiroshi Abe) — his larger-than-when-alive spirit nonetheless informs the family’s fraught interactions with (or detachment from) one another, just as a dead woman shaped the dread in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Alain Resnais’ Muriel.
Set over 24 hours at the parents’ seaside residence, Still Walking begins in media res as mother (Kirin Kiki) and raspy-voiced daughter Chinami (You) swap secrets and recipes while fixing up an economy-be-damned feast — with its familial bric-a-brac and well-used, middle-class fittings, the home strikes one as perfectly lived-in, which props up the immediate sense of recognition. We then trail the withdrawn father (Yoshio Harada) — a retired doctor who still prefers to be addressed as such and who often sits alone in his examining-room annex (the home doubled as a clinic before a larger hospital opened nearby) — on his stroll through the lovely, verdant surrounding area. The patriarch’s telltale first words? “Oh, you’re here,” which he grumbles upon seeing Ryo, whose own unease towards returning to unmet parental expectations is succinctly aired when he entreats his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) to make up “an emergency PTA meeting.” Love is a many splintered thing in this family.
An unemployed art restorer, Ryo has never been able to supplant his parent’s WWJD (What Would Junpei Do) standard — one based solely on that fathomless what-if — nor has he endeared himself to their utilitarian ways with his impractical profession (again, Junpei would have basically inherited his father’s life). An American production might have Ryo stamping his feet and shouting “JUNPEI, JUNPEI, JUNPEI!” at this point, but not Kore-eda; instead, he stresses the testy relationship further with the parent’s disapproval of the recent marriage to a widow with a 10-year-old son (Shohei Tanaka) in tow (“A divorcee is better than a widow; at least it’s voluntary” to paraphrase the still-mourning mother’s logical yet oblivious opinion). Later, when Chagall is mentioned as a chimeric restoration project, it becomes more than a laughable placeholder: Ryo’s careworn face spells out his desire to fly this provincial coop like some Chagallian figure, bride and child in hand.
The actual day and “plot” unfold at a leisurely, listen-and-glean pace; a weighty sidelong glance often substitutes for a verbal confrontation. What we discover over the simple progression of meals, an open-air sojourn to the cemetery, a prayer session (in which the less-than-impressive boy that Junpei saved makes a revelatory visit), and miscellaneous small talk only underscores Chinami’s early belief: “Children don’t grow up the way you want them to.” And neither do the parents. Indeed, secrets and buried disappointments bubble to the surface like tar, momentarily blackening and weighing down the film’s light, serene, extempore mood. Yet, these hidden agendas and nettling slips in tact also color the characters with real, slow-to-show emotion to the same degree that an observed habit does, such as the mother retelling the same stories either out of comfort or senility or the father’s reflex to blame others. In other words, their fallibility rounds them into recognizable, sympathetic figures.
In Japanese cinema’s echo chamber, Still Walking is the natural, humanistic response to a full-throated bellow of Ozzzuuuuuu. Like the low-key Japanese master, Kore-eda’s perennial concern with mono no aware (a Japanese term that describes an “awareness of the transience of things”) lines his sensitive script, whether with its the stock phrase “brings back memories,” which nearly becomes an incantation in its sighing repetition, or that Ryo’s trade is specifically devoted to age and the erosive effects of time. That Ryo realizes the precious need to restore his filial affection only once he’s down the road (literally and figuratively) ends the film on a bittersweet note, one treated with a delicate, drifting tone that recalls e.e. cummings’ “if there are heavens my mother.” Kore-eda mints a wonderful idiom: there’s no placation at home.
Still Standing premieres tonight at 5 p.m. It also plays tomorrow and Thursday; click here for details.