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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: May 9

Kore-eda’s Reinvention of Classic Japanese Cinema

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

Related films: After Life, Nobody Knows, Our Little Sister, Shoplifters, Tokyo Story

Studio: CineQuanon

Year: 2008

Verdict: 5.5/6


Introducing Still Walking

If any film deserves the label «modern classic», it is Still Walking. The narrative's gravitas, the cast's compelling chemistry, and the pristine filmmaking reaffirm why Kore-eda is celebrated as our era's most esteemed Japanese director.

Still Walking paints a nuanced portrait of familial dynamics. It delves into the intricacies of human connections, personal remorse, and the indelible imprints of the past.

The seemingly ordinary family gathering is centered around the anniversary of the eldest son Junpei's untimely demise. The get-together serves as a platform to navigate unresolved tensions, enduring sorrow, and upheld pretenses in the pursuit of familial harmony.

In essence, Still Walking is Kore-eda’s crowning achievement. The narrative pivots on the friction of generational disparities, a theme echoed in the cinematography. Packed with societal contemplations, the aesthetic pays homage to the ambiance of 1950s Japanese dramas, each line bearing the weight of its cinematic legacy.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Storytelling in Full Bloom

Films like Nobody Knows, Like Father Like Son, and Shoplifters showcase Kore-eda’s delicate touch in tackling emotionally complex narratives with resounding simplicity. His storytelling has a delicate balance of tragedy and comedy, realism and poeticism — a narrative dance that evokes a sense of intimate familiarity.

Kore-eda's filmmaking is marked by an empathetic gaze on his characters and their ordinary lives. His style is subtle and graceful, often eschewing dramatic climaxes for gentle revelations.

The recurring themes in his works include the exploration of familial ties, the scars of loss, and the silent echoes of the past in the present. His depiction of children, in particular, showcases a profound understanding of their perspectives, resilience, and quiet observations.

Kore-eda’s approach to filmmaking — rich in its sociocultural commentary yet universal in appeal — has made him one of the most influential figures in Japanese film today.

Walking in Ozu’s Shadow

Much to Kore-eda’s dismay, Still Walking labeled him the Yasujirô Ozu of our age. Many describe the film as a modern-day take on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Though not entirely accurate, one could certainly argue that a poignant resemblance between the two films lies in their resonance with their respective audiences.

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 feels neglected by its children. The same children face the enormous pressure of maintaining a society screaming for upkeep yet suffering a decreasing workforce.

While both films embody a sense of understated simplicity, Tokyo Story presents its message more overtly. Still Walking, on the other hand, mirrors societal issues through portrayals of cynicism, disdain, and despair while retaining Kore-eda’s distinct style. Yet, at first glance, the striking parallels to Tokyo Story are unmistakable.

Still Walking Synopsis

The venue in both Ozu and Kore-eda’s films is family gatherings. In Tokyo Story, an elderly couple visits 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 affects the family. In Still Walking, the family gets together to mourn the loss of their child and brother, Junpei.

The key characters in Still Walking — the grieving parents, the carefree daughter, the overshadowed younger son Ryota, his wife, and stepson — each bring their emotional complexities to the table.

Ryota, in particular, embodies the struggle of living under the shadow of a lost sibling. His journey toward understanding his parents and coming to terms with his own life is the centerpiece of the narrative.

The whole film is set in 36 hours or so, depicting the family supper, dinner, and the following day. As it turns out, losing their firstborn son is a wound that never healed within the old couple. Constant bickering creates a tense atmosphere, which recurs whenever the family gathers.

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

Poisonous Pleasantries | Still Walking Analysis

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 the undisputed master of dialogue. His razor-sharp writing reveals more depth each time you revisit Still Walking.

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

Kore-eda's nuanced depiction of these issues reflects his cinematic prowess, as well as the inherent subtleties of Japanese behavioral patterns, on display for all to see.

The Dark Side of Honne and Tatemae

In Japan, there exists a cultural concept known as «Honne» and «Tatemae», which loosely translates to «real feelings» and «outward courtesy». This underpins Japan's compelling societal norm: Politeness is an obligatory veneer regardless of the circumstances. This cultural practice makes the Japanese adept at concealing disdain and discerning insincere pleasantries.

Whether Kore-eda intentionally leveraged Honne and Tatemae or not is beside the point. The dialogues may unwittingly echo his personal thought processes, but their brilliance is unquestionable, nonetheless. It is impossible to look away when the cute-as-a-button grandmother skillfully masks biting remarks towards her daughter in the guise of innocent banter.

The grandmother’s contempt is so deep-seated that she doesn’t notice how her fake words of praise hurt like a knife in the back. Instead, she appears too lost in her pain to realize the harm she inflicts on others. These intricate displays of human interactions make Still Walking universally and perpetually relatable.

What is the Message of Still Walking

Still Walking is a meditation on the complexities of family dynamics. It encourages the audience to reflect on their familial relationships, pushing them to confront the often-uncomfortable realities underlying familial bonds, such as unspoken resentments or unhealed wounds.

It imparts the poignant message that families are not perfect and often a complex mixture of love and frustration, understanding and misunderstanding, expectations and disappointments.

The film also communicates how grief can linger, subtly yet persistently, affecting individuals and their relationships over time. By portraying the enduring sense of loss and its effects on the family, the film emphasizes that grief isn't something one simply moves on from but rather an emotion that people learn to live with.

Still Walking speaks volumes about the passage of time, subtly illustrating how the past influences the present. It explores the idea that people are the sum of their past experiences, carrying their history and memories into their present lives. This interplay between past and present sends a powerful message about life's and time's cyclical and enduring nature.

Lastly, the film conveys the universality of human emotions and experiences. Regardless of cultural context, the themes of family, loss, and time resonate with a worldwide audience, highlighting the shared human condition.

As such, Still Walking delivers a message of acceptance — acceptance of imperfect family dynamics, enduring grief, the passage of time, and, ultimately, our shared humanity. It's a testament to the beauty of ordinary life and the emotional landscapes beneath its surface.

The Making of Still Walking | Post-2000s Japanese Cinimalism

Kore-eda's directorial style in Still Walking exhibits a predilection for static cameras, lending the film an enduring sense of placidity.

Only four sequences punctuate the narrative with camera movements, each imbuing key scenes with dynamic energy. From the playful scenes of children in the street to the solemn visit to Junpei’s grave and the final descent from the family graveyard, these rare movements accentuate pivotal moments in the narrative's arc.

The story progresses wholly linearly, set over one and a half days, with a concluding scene set three years into the future. There are no flashbacks or alternate storylines, making the narrative straightforward yet profoundly impactful.

Such visual languor complements the film's dialogue-rich texture. It gives viewers time to unpack the layered conversations and grasp the underlying messages. The film's pace may be perceived as slow, but the slow-burning narrative cleverly entices the viewer's attention.

In between the subdued filmic language, the casting quickly stands out as a tapestry of unbridled character chemistry. From Kirin Kiki and Yoshio Harada's resonant portrayal of the grandparents to Hiroshi Abe as Ryota and Shohei Tanaka as his son Atsushi, the dynamics hum with energy and authenticity.

The characters' development beautifully complements the unhurried rhythm of the narrative, transforming the ostensibly uneventful storyline into an emotional journey that hooks the audience. Yet, the film's narrative never overshadows Still Walking’s visual aesthetics.

Cinematography, Score & Style

With elegant set pieces and pristine cinematography, Still Walking frames its drama in a somber mise-en-scene, enhancing the movie's realism. The score is equally sparse, with the occasional strain of the radio classic «Blue Light Yokohama» etching memorable moments in the viewer's mind.

The utilization of non-diegetic music in Still Walking is sparing yet effective. A melancholic theme, repeated briefly on five occasions, haunts the narrative. In a key scene, however, the diegetic music plays a significant role when the grandmother puts on a record with a song called «Aruitemo Aruitemo», which loosely translates to «still walking».

In essence, Still Walking is a reverberating echo of age-old stylistic traits in Japanese cinema. Its minimalist ethos and use of long takes and static cameras resonate with the techniques employed by prewar Japanese filmmakers, making it a timeless testament to the power of understated storytelling.

One of the film's stylistic hallmarks is its Average Shot Length (ASL) of 17.9 seconds. This characteristic is a quintessential feature of Japanese Cinimalism, a term coined by the Japanese Cinema Archives to describe and define the Japanese film paradigm. And Still Walking showcases Japanese Cinimalism like few others.

A Window with a View into Japanese Culture and Traditions

Still Walking is a tapestry woven with the intricate details of traditional Japanese life, providing a nuanced reflection of its culture and customs. With his keen eye for detail, Kore-eda weaves an authentic depiction of Japanese societal norms and familial interactions, allowing the audience an immersive cultural experience.

One of the most significant aspects of Japanese culture presented in the film is the traditional family structure and hierarchy. The patriarch, Kyohei, a retired doctor, assumes a position of authority and emotional distance, which is not uncommon in traditional Japanese families.

Kyohei’s relationship with his children, particularly his surviving son Ryota, demonstrates the societal expectations of conformity and respect toward parental authority.

The film also delves into traditional Japanese customs through the commemoration of death. The family's gathering in remembrance of Junpei's passing is steeped in rituals, from preparing specific foods to graveyard visitation, offering an insight into how Japanese culture commemorates and respects the deceased.

This annual ritualistic gathering, known as «obon», is a common practice in Japan, reflecting the culture's deep-rooted family values, as well as the respect and honoring of ancestors.

Furthermore, Still Walking offers glimpses of Japanese living through its setting. The Yokoyama family house, a traditional Japanese home with tatami mat floors, sliding doors, and a dedicated room for a Buddhist altar, echoes a distinctly Japanese way of life.

Food, another crucial aspect of Japanese culture, plays a significant role in the film. The meticulous preparation of meals, especially the labor-intensive corn tempura, serves as a metaphor for the family's complicated emotions, such as hidden resentment and unexpressed love.

It's a showcase of «omotenashi», the Japanese spirit of hospitality and caring for others through the act of servitude.

Still Walking thus becomes more than just a family drama; it is a window with a view into Japanese culture and customs. Through exploring traditional values, rituals, and everyday life, Kore-eda presents a film that is profoundly Japanese yet universally human.

Final Verdict for Still Walking

Still Walking is one to watch for anyone interested in Japanese culture and society. It offers a fascinating glimpse into Japanese family life and traditions. Hierarchies, gender roles, and the generational gap in Japan are all tackled in-depth in a manner that harks 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 a modern-day Ozu. That said, both films appear to be products of their time. Like many other Japanese art forms, their perfecting of cinematic expressions seems to be an ongoing project 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 the least of which is entertainment value.


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