By Steven Boone
[Still Walking is now playing at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza cinemas in Manhattan.]
Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking could have been made in 1949 by Yasujiro Ozu. I guess we hear that about a lot of films. Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumiere was a direct homage that really took Ozu's restraint to a certain (yawn) extreme. Directors as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Mike Leigh cite his influence. On the perverse deep end, Shinya Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist inserted Ozu-style pillow shots into an urban fable that had more in common with Fight Club than with Tokyo Story. But Still Walking, more than any work I've come across, feels like something Ozu himself (dead forty-six years now) has directed. Kore-eda seems to replicate Ozu's post-war style and philosophy, tailoring it to a slightly more acidic, ironic temperament. The polite façade that Ozu loved to slowly, carefully dismantle gets the same delicately cruel treatment here.
The premise is easy to capture in a line: Forty-something Japanese son (Hiroshi Abe) disappoints Japanese doctor father (Yoshio Harada) by refusing to take over the family practice—even in light of the fact that the preferred heir, his charismatic older brother, died tragically young years ago. A Tokyo-born friend who attended the screening with me said, "This is such a typical Japanese story, no surprises. I don't see why an American would want to watch this." I argued that an American arthouse customer is happy to watch the same ol' same ol' when it's dressed in exotic garb. But that's not quite right. Even a fairly cloistered American must be tired of the Asian Generational Clash cliche. I can't think of an Asian screen character popular in the West that isn't foremost afraid of dishonoring his parents, ancestors, nation, etc.
Still Walking doesn't go anywhere we haven't been before, but Kore-eda must have meditated gravely over each choice of camera setup along the way. Shot by shot, Still Walking settles into the best seat in the house until we've gotten our fill of what's available to see and hear from that vantage point. And then on to the next. As if from our own tatami mat, we watch least-favorite-son Ryoto (Abe), his timid wife and stepson (Yui Natsukawa and Shohei Tanaka), his sassy mother (Kirin Kiki), loopy sister (YOU, the adorable fuck-up from Nobody Knows), her glad-handing husband (Kazuya Takahashi), their precocious kids, and of course, their stone lion of a patriarch (Harada) do all they can to avoid the touchy subject that has gathered them together: The 15-year anniversary of the heir apparent's drowning. This is some gorgeous voyeurism. As we spend the day with this family, Kore-eda keeps the house lights down, so that no matter how rough a time Ryota is having, we can enjoy the natural spectacle of residual sunlight bouncing from the fields surrounding this rural home and reaching in through eye-level windows to describe its interior in shy, diffuse patterns. It's an everyday pleasure we rarely stop to indulge.
Yes, that's exactly how Ozu went about his business, an overwhelmingly Japanese way of observing family strife. But Ozu didn't have access to the ultra-fine grain and great latitude of Fuji Eterna film stocks, as Kore-eda and his regular cinematographer, Yutaka Yamasaki, do here. Maybe there was more to see in Ozu's world, maybe not. In any case, the technology at Kore-eda's disposal offers a clearer window through which to view the proceedings. There is a shot of a a child's fingers dallying with piano keys, recorded with so little light that I fear even Blu-ray won't quite capture how wondrous it is in the dark of the theater. Another arresting image of feet pausing at food spilled on the kitchen floor is a Dutch master's study of flooring and graceful appendages. And, of course, the pillow shots. There's a scene of trees bowing under the wind that I insist is lifted from Late Spring and colorized. (No, not really.)
"All this tech talk," you might grumble, "but what about what the film is about?" Well, I could get into the unique ways this movie plays its familiar hand and how Kore-eda's modestly brilliant ensemble manages not to act but to be a family. I could tell you about the various resonances and themes of inheritance, shame, responsibility and regret he builds into the narrative. Eh, you can get that everywhere else, but I suggest you wait until you've seen the film before diving into those discussions. It's more important to warn you that Kore-eda goes further into meditative stillness than in After Life and Nobody Knows, films that, for all their studied visuals, were as clean and brisk as their one-two punch English titles. Properly prepared to sit, look and listen rather than wait around for new developments as if at a taxi stand, I think you'll get a lot out of this one. The camera is bashful, but the people it captures are living their (fictional) lives, not concerned with pleasing, entertaining or avoiding us in any way. On the contrary, they're so caught up in pleasing, entertaining and avoiding each other that you'll swear old Ozu has come back to deliver another beauty, especially when dusk arrives and the carefully sewn familial seams begin to fray.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.