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  • Robin Syversen

STILL WALKING (2008)

Updated: Apr 11

The reinvention of classic Japanese cinema!



Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi, Kirin Kiki, Yoshio Harada

Related films: Tokyo Story, After Life, Our Little Sister, Shoplifters, The Little House

Verdict: 5.5/6


Introduction

If ever there was a film deserving the title of modern classic it is Still Walking. It is one of the most profound family dramas to come out of Japan in recent years. The weight of the story, the chemistry of the cast and the pristine film making underlines why Kore-eda came to be the most revered Japanese director of our time.


In many ways this is the director’s masterpiece. A central issue in the story is generational differences. This is perfectly mirrored by the cinematography, as the filmmaking echoes the atmosphere of Japanese dramas from the 50’s. Still Walking is loaded with social reflections between the lines, and the lines are shaped by the history of Japanese film.


Background

Much to Kore-eda’s dismay, Still Walking labeled him as the Yasujirô Ozu of our age. Many describe the film as a modern day take on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two was that both films hit a nerve with the audience of its time.


Tokyo Story reflected the relentless growth in post-war Japan. The rapidly changing society left the pre-war generation behind and never looked back. Likewise, the aging generation in today’s Japan feel neglected by its children. The same children are faced with the enormous pressure of maintaining a society screaming for upkeep and lacking in workforce.


Though both films are understated in nature, the message are plainer to see in Tokyo Story. Still Walking reflects issues in society with depictions of cynicism, contempt and depression. The story definitely has an unmistakable Kore-eda-flair to it. On the surface however, the parallels to Tokyo Story cannot be missed.


Plot

The setting in both films is a family gathering. In Tokyo Story an elderly couple visit their children in Tokyo. In Still Walking the main stage is the home of the parents. In Tokyo Story the loss of a son and husband to WWII is affecting the family. In Still Walking the family get together to mourn the loss of their child and brother, Jûbei.


Aside from the elderly couple, there are two children visiting the family home in Still Walking. The daughter arrives with her husband and two children, the son with his wife and her child from a previous marriage. The whole film is set in 36 hours or so, depicting the family supper, dinner and next morning.


As it turns out, the loss of their firstborn son is a wound that never healed within the old couple. Constant bickering makes for a tense atmosphere, which evidently is a recurring state whenever the family gathers.


The Grandfather is disappointed by the fact that his family business perished with the death of Jûbei. The visiting son is in opposition to his patronizing father, who constantly lashes out bitter words of resentment, almost like blaming his living children for the loss of his son.


Between the lines

Kore-eda has received much praise for his understated cinematography, but between the lines is where he shines. This is where he differentiates himself from other Japanese directors, as he truly is a master of dialogue. His razor sharp writing reveals more depth each time you revisit his films, and Still Walking is no exception.


Many lines are thinly veiled insults, fueled by sadness and frustration. These hidden meanings between the lines can be hard to detect right away, since they are deceptively concealed as pleasantries and concern. Behind the forced courtesies, needle-sharp stabs of irritation pokes back and forth between family members throughout the film.


The dialogues between the rarely visiting children and their parents reveal many hardships and intrigues which has yet to be solved. The sophisticated portrayal of these issues is not only the essence of Kore-eda’s greatness, it is the essence of Japanese behavioral patterns being displayed for all to see.


Japan has a concept called «Honne» and «Tatemae», which roughly translates to «real feelings» and «outward courtesy». It underlines the fact that politeness is mandatory in Japan, no matter the situation. People are polite no matter how they really feel, which also makes them masters in hiding contempt and seeing through false niceties.


Whether Kore-eda is utilizing Honne and Tatemae consciously or not is besides the point. His dialogues might very well reflect his own though patterns on a subconscious level, but they are brilliant none the less. It is just impossible to look away when this cute-as-a-button grandmother sugar coats lethal insults for her own daughter.


The mother’s contempt is so deep-seated that she might not even notice how her fake words of praise hurts like a knife in the back. She might just be too lost in her own pain to realize the harm she inflicts on others. No matter the reason, these are the things that make Still Walking universally and perpetually relatable.


Production

Much of the magic behind the lines is due to perfect casting. The chemistry on set is vibrating from start to end. Especially Kirin Kiki and Yoshio Harada do a great job as the grandparents. Together with the rest of the cast they reveal the hardship of the family in a subtle and very believable manner.


The character development perfectly aids the relatively slow momentum of the narrative. The pace might be measured, and the story might appear uneventful, but the dialogue and character growth make Still Walking an emotional ride that is never boring.


Of course, the set pieces and cinematography are also pristine. However, the minimal appearance is mostly serving the purpose of adding to the realism of the drama. The score is also sparse, and only brought to the surface when the radio classic «Blue Light Yokohama» comes on and makes for one of the most memorable scenes in the film.


Conclusion

Still Walking is one to watch for anyone interested in Japanese culture and society. It is a fascinating glimpse into Japanese family life and traditions. Family hierarchies, gender roles and the generational gap in Japan are all tackled in-depth, in a manner that hark back to the heyday of Yasujirô Ozu himself.


The similarities will probably forever connect Still Walking and Tokyo Story, just like it forever labels Kore-eda as a modern day Ozu. That being said, both films appear to be products of their time. Like many other Japanese art forms, the perfecting of expressions seems to rather be a project continued across generations.


Kore-eda’s reluctance to accept his label is understandable. Not only is it somewhat inaccurate, but it is a huge burden to uphold such an image. Not that it would cause him much problem. As far as JCA is concerned, Kore-eda’s films are a step up from Ozu in most respects, not least of which is entertainment value.


Final comment

Still Walking is definitely top 3 on my list of favorite Kore-eda films. Which spot it takes will be revealed when I sometime make the list into a blog post for these pages. Send me a hint if you want to see it sooner rather than later, and I will get right on it.


Even though Still Walking took Kore-eda to a new level of international fame, it took a while for the film to be properly released. Not until 2019 did Still Walking appear on Blu-ray for the European market, and only as part of a Kore-eda box set. Luckily this box is a welcomed addition to any serious Japanese film collection. For the American market the Criterion release is the way to go.

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