In many ways, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s newest film, “Still Walking,” reminds me of one of my favorite recent films, “Rachel Getting Married.” Both are about family gatherings, and both center on the recent tragic death of a family member. But while “Rachel” regularly explodes into screaming matches, “Still Walking” keeps the tension almost entirely below the surface. Perhaps this has to do with the difference between two cultures; perhaps it’s just the difference between two filmmakers.
In “Still Walking,” the ghost in the room in Junpei, the eldest and most beloved son of Yoshio Harada, a retired doctor. Junpei was on his way to becoming a doctor and taking over his father’s practice when he drowned while saving a life. That life belongs to Haruko Kato, who hasn’t managed to do much with it, but still faithfully visits the family every year on the anniversary of Junpei’s death. The rest of the family gathers as well; this is a common Japanese tradition.
Hiroshi Abe is the second eldest son. He is tall and good-looking, recently married to a widow with a 7 year old son. He has lived his entire life envying his now-dead older brother, who was their father’s favorite. The old man is gruff and grumpy, desperately, forcefully clinging to the respect he has spent his whole life earning. He doesn’t know how to relate to Abe; he has always looked past him. And Abe seethes with barely contained anger toward his father; it’s hard to spend your whole life overlooked, compared to and falling short of your sibling; harder still to know how to be part of your family now that your sibling is gone.
Abe’s sister is played by Japanese pop star You, who I find to be one of the most annoying and unbearable actresses in the world. She was also in Kore-Eda’s masterful film “Nobody Knows;” it was okay to be annoyed with her there, as she played an irresponsible mother who abandons her four children for months at a time. She speaks in the cutesy, affected manner of Manga characters; one can imagine this being cute when she was 20, but she’s 40 (at least now) and the cute has worn off. There are few things more annoying and unbearable than a 40 year old woman trying to pretend she’s still 20. This is really too bad, because I think her character is supposed to be somewhat likable; she often smooths over arguments and plays peacemaker in family disputes. But her voice drives me nuts. Perhaps you’ll have a different reaction.
In spite of You, “Still Walking” is a powerful and affecting film. Kore-Eda is often compared to master Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; his compositions are quiet, his direction pensive and ponderous. This movie works because its characters all feel like real people; the grumpy doctor, his busy housewife, the bitter second son, his polite and quietly desperate wife all have things going on inside of them that only rise to the surface in fleeting, unguarded moments. “Still Walking” deserves your attention; you will find yourself reflecting and speculating on these characters as their days play out in front of you, and as your days play out afterwards.