Having recently gotten a review copy of The Criterion Collection’s latest DVD release, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo), I found myself torn as fundamentally as I have ever been at the receipt of the package, but not for the reasons one might think a critic might be torn. The film is fabulous, great, and everything that the people who recommended I check out Kore-eda’s films said it would be, and I requested on their praise. But the DVD package left me profoundly saddened because this very same film is available for streaming on Netflix and the DVD’s features are so meager as to offer no real reason to actually buy the DVD package rather than just stream the film.
Contrary to myth, the reason DVD displaced VHS was not because the video quality was better, nor even that one did not have the several minutes rewind time to deal with, but solely because the DVDs provided extra or bonus features- usually a bevy of featurettes, and a commentary track which allowed reviewers to often recommend mediocre films because of a superior extras package.
The leading light of this movement had been Criterion, usually picking the best films in cinema history, and giving them the ‘full extras treatment’ that even the film studios did not. There would be one or more learned commentary track, and a wealth of featurettes and essays in the insert booklets. Yes, DVDs have always been outrageously overpriced- especially so quality and foreign films vs. the junk food films Hollywood releases quite cheaply, but one felt the extra money actually helped preserve and foster a film culture.
Then, a few years back, when Criterion dropped their old logo in favor of a semi-circle C, skimping on extras became the norm, not the exception, and many, if not most of their new releases lacked commentaries. One might claim that costs caught up with the company, but for a few years it did not matter, as even in the early days of streaming (say, 2007 and 2008) there were not enough titles to bring competition, and the lure of ‘owning’ a film on DVD held a power, even if it was clearly overpriced. No more, though, and even if Criterion gets a small portion of the Netflix revenue I’m afraid a tipping point may have been reached, and the DVD and Blu-Ray markets will get eaten by technology, as were erstwhile video giants Hollywood and Blockbuster Videos.
Granted, in a few years one may very well be able to stream commentaries and features along with the films, and maybe Criterion, and other top flight companies, like Anchor Bay, Kino, and Masters Of Cinema, may survive, as mere content providers, not independent retailers, but I doubt it. And, if the movie studios are too stupid to embrace Netflix and its kind as de facto advertisers, and include them in future advertising models, we’ll all be the poorer for it. And this will mean that the Golden Era of increased cinema knowledge (artistically and historically) may well be over. And that’s a shame. I’ll return to the DVD features in a bit, but now on to this cinematic masterpiece by Kore-eda.
There’s little doubt that all the hype over his being a latter-day Yasujiro Ozu is true. On one of the DVD extras he declares a greater affinity to Mikio Naruse’s style, but, having only seen one Naruse film, When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, and many Ozu films, this film is throbbing with Ozu DNA- from its opening, silent images, to its very last shot, overlooking a harbor, as a train passes by; almost a direct quotation of Ozu’s ending to his masterpiece Tokyo Story. The only real difference is that Kore-eda’s camera is more fluid and scenes are less formally framed.
Like the Ozu film, though, this film follows the Yokoyma family gathering (an all too familiar setup, but one which the handling and writing deftness not only saves but elevates), on the anniversary of the eldest son’s death, by drowning, while saving the life of a local boy, a dozen years earlier. That son is the never seen Junpei, who was to follow in his father’s footsteps as a doctor. The doctor (Yoshio Harada) is now retired, and lives with his wife (Kirin Kiki), and the two of them have a classic love/hate relationship with each other and the world about them. The old man resents his two surviving children, Chinami (You), a happy go lucky housewife with a used car salesman husband (Kazuya Takahashi), a son and daughter, and Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an unemployed art restorer, who recently married a young widow, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), who has a son, Atsushi (Shoehi Tanaka). In all, the setup is a classic one- a family gathers and revelations come. What makes this film sop great is that it is not melodrama- there is no shouting nor infidelities revealed. It’s real, as if a camera was dropped in a real setting. It’s as if John Cassavetes went to Japan and just shot what he saw. It’s THAT great.