Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sixth feature film, Still Walking is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. In discussing the film, Kore-eda speaks of this story of one day in the lives of a typically dysfunctional family as his most personal work to date. Written two years after the death of his mother, he sees it as his attempt to come to terms with his personal conflicts over his loss. The family in the movie is not his family, he says, but the conflicted emotions are his emotions. He has taken his own subjective experience and objectified it in an attempt to universalize the individual.
Kore-eda, who began as a director of documentaries, turned to fictional features in 1995 with Maborosi, a film about a young wife’s attempt to deal with her husband’s suicide. This was followed by After Life in 1998, Distance (2001), Nobody Knows (2004), and Hana (2006). Critics have praised his films for the way they deal with themes of memory and loss with sensitivity, but without sentimentality. Indeed in an interview included as an extra on the new DVD, Kore-eda, while acknowledging the personal nature of his film, disclaims feelings of nostalgia. Clearly nostalgia is his term for sentimentalizing the past. The material of his films may be fictional, but it is screened with all the realism of his documentaries.
Still Walking is one of those dramas in which nothing seems to happen yet everything happens: think Chekov. The Yokohama family has gathered on the anniversary of the eldest son’s death, a fact that only gradually becomes apparent as the film progresses. In fact most of the undercurrents of the family relationships are revealed through indirection and innuendo as the film progresses.
Ryota, the second son, feels the typical inadequacies of the younger child. He has married a widow with a child, and he is having trouble finding work. His parents are less than thrilled with his marriage and disappointed with his failure to follow in his father’s, a doctor, profession. His sister and her family are trying to wheedle their way into living with their parents, an arrangement which would involve moving into the older brother’s room, which their mother treats as something of a shrine. The relationship between the older Yokohamas is also less than idyllic. They rarely communicate and when they do, they quarrel. There are reasons, and they are revealed slowly and subtly. Kore-eda is nothing, if not subtle.
Subtlety and indirection are central to the film’s imagery as well. Kore-eda and Director of Photography and cinematographer, Yutaka Yamazaki, also in an interview included as one of the DVD extras, both talk about the importance of what is happening outside the frame. Yamazaki’s comments are illustrated by a scene from the film where the frame is focused on an empty room as action is going on just outside. This is a technique used often in the film. The audience is always made aware that what they are seeing on the screen is only the surface. It is necessary to look beyond the frame to get an idea of reality. The cinematic technique reinforces the thesis that much that is significant in human interaction is hidden beneath the surface, just as the dead son’s absence dominates so much of what is happening.
Although when one has to depend on subtitles it is sometimes difficult to tell, performances are natural and realistic. There is no chewing of scenery. Hiroshi Abe’s Ryota is appropriately miserable without being sullen. Yoshio Harada plays the father with a stern stoicism that ignores everything around him, but every once in awhile opens up, especially to Ryota’s son. His sister is played by You (the name of the actress) with a kind of nasal good humored artificiality. But perhaps the subtlest performance is Kirin Kiki as the mother. She can drop the most biting of remarks with the most casual aplomb. She hides her unhappiness with everyone around her in fussing attentiveness. Even her care with cooking seems calculated to other ends. This is an ensemble cast that works together about as well as any real family could.
Besides the interviews the DVD also includes a half hour documentary on the making of the film and a trailer. The interviews are well worth your time. Besides talking about the personal nature of the material, Kore-eda talks about his career in general, his influences and ironically the removal he now feels from the material. It is as though the making of the film had a therapeutic effect. Yamazaki talks about how he came to work with Kore-eda as well as the collaborative process. The documentary provides insights into the way this particular director works with his actors and the rest of the creative team. It looks at large elements like rehearsals and details like costume choices. The DVD also comes with a little brochure that includes an essay of the film and the writer/director by Dennis Lim, and a set of recipes from Kore-eda for the dishes prepared in the film.