Still Walking (Kore-eda, 2009)

4768516_articleimagewide-round

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.

Nobody Knows (Kore-eda, 2004)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows begins within a seemingly tight safety net; Keiko and her son Akira formally greeting their new landlords with a gift. The interaction is formal, polite, and altogether pleasing for all involved. Later, as the two begin to unpack their belongings, Keiko opens up one of her suitcases and out pops Shigeru, another young son, and then young daughter Yuki from another similar piece of luggage. Later, older sister Kyoko joins them from the train station. This whole process is like a practiced ballet, and we later learn this tight knit group of siblings has experienced such movement many times.  In the early moments of Nobody Knows Kore-eda makes sure to emphasize two elements that will haunt the rest of the film; Keiko’s recklessness as a mother and each child’s role in making the family unit work while she is absent. When Keiko leaves for work one last time, promising to be back for Christmas, even Akira gets the sense she might not come back. The rest of the film is a painful look at the four children attempting to survive on their own, abandoned by their mother and ignored by the adult world coexisting beside them. The inherent tragedy of the situation is never treated with sentimentality or brutality, but the right amount of balance between the two. Kore-eda uses a typical hand held camera style to parallel the fluidity of the kids’ situation, but injects a number of telephoto lens to constrict the image, forcing the characters together within the frame. The result is a sort of neo-realism (non-professional actors, on location shooting) concerning the arrogance, impotence, and ignorance of the adult world and it’s affects on children. Akira, the leader of this troupe, goes through his own bouts of selfishness while dealing with his mother’s departure, only to realize too late the ramifications his greed has had on the familial whole. Kore-eda does a brilliant job juxtaposing the depressing and lyrical final sequence alongside a tune of hope, concluding with a shot of the children walking down the street, out in the open, more experienced, and fully aware of each other’s importance to the group.