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.
Such a film obviates a plot recounting, as the film is chock full of moments that reveal the characters and their interrelations. We see how Ryota is resentful of his father, who denigrates his art restoring work, and tries to escape the situation by constantly being on his cell phone. We see how the father and mother resent his new wife and stepson. The father openly wishes that Ryota had been the son that died, and his disdain is on full display upon first seeing his son in his home again. Instead of greeting Ryota he merely grunts, ‘Oh, you’re here.’ His mother is even worse than his father in how she subtly denigrates both the wife and stepson with subtle digs and not so subtle acts (like buying Ryota new pajamas for their night over, but not buying some for Atsushi. Chinami is the peacemaker, but recognizes her father’s resentment toward her, for living while Junpei dies, and also her and her husband’s and children’s impending move in to the family home. Her mother also berates her at every turn, and makes snide comments on her children and husband- most notably that when Chinami’s husband offers to fix some bathroom tiles for the mother, the mother refuses and says he’s a guest, only later to chide him for offering, not following through, and acting as if he was a ‘guest.’
But most of the doctor’s and mother’s resentment is turned toward Yoshio, the boy (now young man) whom Junpei saved. Once a year they invite him over to their home to, as the mother says, make him feel as badly as they do, because she ‘needs to do so. When he leaves they mock him for his poor lot in life, being overweight, and call him ‘useless trash’; all except Ryota. Then there is the relationship between Ryota and Atsushi, who calls his stepfather Ryo, despite his mother’s asking him to call him dad. We later find out that the boy actually misses his dead father immensely- so much so that he wants to be a piano tuner, like his father, and recalls catching yellow butterflies with his father, after he sees the grandmother chasing a yellow butterfly and believing it is Junpei returned to her, because it lands on her dead son’s photo. This is important because the boy, earlier in the film, several times pretended to barely remember his father, only to later, in a private moment, in the middle of the night, in the backyard, reveal that it was all an act. Yet, only the audience learns this.
At film’s end there’s an even further payoff for the yellow butterfly trope as we see Ryota, a few years later, forgetting where he heard a myth about yellow butterflies, that he tells to a daughter he later has, just as his mother forgets where she heard the myth she tells to Ryota. And this sort of moment is also echoed when both Ryota and the grandmother, after trying and failing to recall the name of a sumo wrestler both finally do, after they have said goodbye (by shaking hands- a fact the grandmother relishes in when the doctor suggests it could have hurt Ryota’s wife’s and stepchild’s feelings), and are headed their own ways. And, as if these touches were not enough to satisfy, there’s an added little moment where the parents, as they walk back, think that this trip is the start of regular visits from Ryota and his family, whom they expect back for New Years, whereas he is relieved, riding on the bus home, and declares to his wife and stepson that this trip obviates any necessity for them to make an obligatory visit for New Year’s.
All these sorts of moments weave a real, but deft, drama, and we see moments that in lesser films, mere melodramas, would explode into ‘tense confrontations,’ but here, become revelations like the doctor’s liking popular music only up to The Beatles, and thinking rap is crap. This scene, though, leads up to one that is revealing, but which draws little mention within the diegetic reality of the film, itself, and that is where the grandmother plays an old record, called Blue Light Yokohama, that all enjoy, but later, as the doctor bathes, and asks why she played that song, she reveals that she heard it when she caught him in an affair, some 40 years earlier, and he realizes that this was her way to get back at him. The look on the doctor’s face is classic, but then the two act as if none of it happened. Later, the doctor is called to attend to an ill neighbor, but pooh-poohs the situation, only to later see that the neighbor is taken away in an ambulance. When the doctor tries to assist, the medics ignore him, and one wonders if the pain on his face is from guilt over how he treated the neighbor, or how he was treated by the medics.
The acting is fantastic in that it is all natural- there is no scenery chewing, and Kore-eda’s well-paced and naturalistic script, the understated but deftly placed musical score by Gontiti, and the unobtrusive, yet evocative cinematography Yutaka Yamasaki, all work synergistically, but in the curious way of adding up to less than the sum of their parts….which is somehow perfect, because less equals more, at least in terms of naturalism. There’s not a forced moment in the film, and it is not a tearjerker, even though it left my wife weeping, and me profoundly moved. This is because it is a deeply and genuinely affecting film. The closest film, in tone, that I can think of, in terms of American cinema, is Woody Allen’s 1988 masterpiece, starring Gena Rowlands: Another Woman, wherein drama, on a grand scale, is achieved by focusing on people who do not live on such a scale. Still Walking is an example of cinemature in both senses of the term: mature filmmaking and literature-like in its depth and profundity.
As for the DVD? The 114 minute film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and there is no English language dubbing, and only the usual unbordered white subtitles Criterion usually uses. There’s an insert booklet with an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and recipes for the food dishes shown in the film. There is a trailer, a documentary on the making of the film; which is not that informative and rather ill organized, as well as interviews with Kore-eda and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki. The Kore-eda interview is the more interesting one, and the director speaks of wanting to have his film filled with omens and reverberations of death. He also speaks of regretting ending the film with a voiceover by the Ryota character specifically detailing the circumstances of his parents a few years later, then cutting to his character, his wife and stepson, and a 5-6 year old daughter, visiting graves. Kore-eda is right because that last shot establishes what the voiceover states, and is one of the few missteps the film makes.
To end where I began, while I think that Netflix may ultimately be a small plus in allowing movie lovers greater access to great classic and foreign films, as this, I am not sure if the tradeoff in the lost educational and historical features DVDs have provided over the last decade or so will be worth the small gain. Without DVDs, what incentive do filmmakers and companies have in making extra features? A sense of history, which seemed to have been gained vis-à-vis your typical VHS renter of 15 year ago, may be lost, unless Criterion (the leading independent DVD company, and long the industry’s creative leader) focuses on what made DVDs special in the first place- the extra features, especially the audio commentaries. Otherwise, DVDs may very well be doomed as a medium.
As for Still Walking? The old saw about them not making films like that any longer is true, at least for Hollywood. But they do make great, mature films still….elsewhere. Go East, young man! Go East!