In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sublime new film Still Walking, the often mentioned but deceased Junbei remains the only character defined by selfless action, a decision that killed him a dozen years ago. Junbei perished saving a young boy from drowning in the sea, and Kore-eda finds his small immediate family gathering for the annual memorial. Prodigal younger brother reluctantly returns home with a new wife and step-son, while older sister and mother banter about plans for a move back home, and elder statesmen father, once a proud doctor, now sits alone in his study aching toward an uncertain and pointless future. Junbei’s picture occasionally haunts the frame like a small phantasm briefly reminding each character of their own slow motion dive into old age.
Supposedly celebrating Junbei’s life, the family incessantly focuses on his death – what could have been, “why did he have to save this boy who wasn’t even his son? – reflecting the guilt and doubt of a family long concerned with hierarchical tradition, role, and legacy. But Kore-eda enlivens familiar tensions (father vs. son) and scenarios by circling the small, vibrant moments of a family attempting to move on. As they slowly languish in the afternoon sun, walk slowly through a lush cemetery, and sit quietly while naive grandchildren rambunctiously play, these characters evolve without a word. Kore-eda gives his scenes and actors plenty of room to breath and time to percolate, trimming action with a memory or word, bringing each relationship into focus.
At times Still Walking is so reserved we almost give Kore-eda too much credit for eliciting emotion from the subtle nuances of this family. Unlike Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, an obvious kindred spirit to Kore-eda’s story, Still Walking ends with a sly and conservative repetition of generational ideologies. Son replaces father, daughter replaces mother, and the family continues on under similar circumstances, still deeply complex characters but ultimately overwhelmed with duty to their ancestors. Assayas’ film dares to revolutionize its family dynamics by allowing for rejuvenation and change in the younger generations, while Kore-eda paints all children as either inevitable or eager heirs to replicating their fathers and mother’s influences, following in footsteps and filling empty shoes.
But Still Walking is remarkably successful at illuminating the sadness in every composition, lining both exteriors and interiors with a texture of melancholy paralleling Kore-eda’s cyclical sense of family. The film feels like an answer/solution to the director’s devastating Nobody Knows, where a group of children are shoved into oblivion by an absent mother. Even when jaded by a tragic twist of fate, the father and mother of Still Walking are strong enough to trust the process of life, giving their children more than a puncher’s chance at understanding the complexities of death.