The living are perpetually in competition with the dead in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s splendid Still Walking, whether it be by their own design or through the expectations of their loved ones. Unfolding over a 24-hour period, Kore-eda’s family drama brings together the members, spouses, and children of the Yokoyama clan under the roof of its patriarch, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), and matriarch, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki). The occasion is the anniversary of their eldest son’s passing some 15 years ago, which occurred during a heroic act of selflessness that has given way to deeply selfish behavior in nearly everyone who was affected by it. And where Junpei’s very life seemed to bless all who knew him, his death has become nothing short of a black hole that spontaneously appears in every room his family reconvenes in.
The absence left by Junpei is palpable throughout the film, but it’s certainly not the only death that hangs heavy on the ties that bind. The Yokoyama’s youngest, Ryoto (Hiroshi Abe), has returned to his childhood home with his new wife, a widow and single mother named Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and her precocious 10-year-old, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Atsushi, who silently confronts his own feelings about his father’s death, still struggles to see Ryoto as his father figure; he is reminded to refer to him as “Dad” rather than by his first name. Even Ryoto’s parents are affected by the death of Atsushi’s father, commenting that it would be better if Ryoto had married a divorced woman since then it would showcase some decisiveness.
These sentiments appear elusively throughout the food preparation, two meals and pre-slumber activities that Still Walking consists of. Before Ryoto even arrives, a conversation about sushi restaurants between Toshiko and her daughter, Chinami (the Japanese pop singer You, who also played the absent mother in Kore-eda’s excellent Nobody Knows), sets the scene for the old-fashioned mindset that Toshiko and Kyohei remain adamant about amid the psychological and physical boundaries being disintegrated by their children. Of course, Ryoto still mirrors the more stubborn aspects of his brutal, brooding father. The film touches on a number of narrative strands, including a plan for Chinami and her family to move into Kyohei’s home, a visit from the young man who Junpei died saving and an extramarital affair Kyohei had years ago, but it is essentially about Ryoto and his father, fueled by disappointment and rebellion but restraining themselves to keep their war civil and retain a sense of class.
Junpei’s death is the loss Kyohei can’t reconcile and therefore Ryoto is unable to reconcile with his father. But as much as death looms large in the Yokoyama home, it is not a mystery to anyone, least of all Kore-eda. Made out of a deep feeling of regret following the passing of his mother, Still Walking finds Kore-eda approaching death with a precise clarity that it is, indeed, the only certainty in life. Despite this, the director’s tone is not even slightly lugubrious, keeping the babbling rivers of resentment covered through humor, silence, nature, and even some sincere love. Even when the contrasting between Ryoto’s generation and Kyohei’s becomes a bit too on-the-nose, the basic love felt between the family members can be seen even in their most petty moments.
Kore-eda’s best film, 1998’s sublime After Life, aesthetically transformed the fantastical concept of the dead having to choose one memory to be turned into film and taken with them to the beyond into a naturalistic masterpiece made up largely of deglamorized interviews (half of which with nonprofessional actors) and humdrum quotidian tasks with just a pinch of whimsical philosophizing. Still Walking, which Kore-eda also wrote, shares that grounded sense of mortality but obviously is a more personal work than After Life, or any of his past work for that matter. The death of his parents and both the sadness felt and the bullheaded ideological arguments fought inform the infighting the Yokoyama’s constantly indulge in; so do the legacies of Ozu and Naruse influence the narrative trajectory, form and mood of Still Walking. The tatami mats, sliding screens, interior architecture, and occasional roll of a commuter train above the neighboring town are indebted to Ozu especially but reappropriated by Kore-eda through his close working relationship with his regular cinematographer, Yutaka Yamasaki.
More than either of those directors, however, Kore-eda expresses a direct relationship to nature and science, whether in Kyohei’s evaporating profession as a doctor or Atsushi’s conversation with his dead father in the backyard under cover of night. Ryoto’s faltering profession as an art restorer and constant interaction with his cellphone are in direct opposition to that and the film does not want for allegorical reiteration of its central conflict. Things as subtle as Joy Division and CBGB/OMFUG posters in Ryoto’s room get lost in the shuffle, but the repetition makes for a more intricate and interesting undercurrent, whereas targeted build-up and cathartic release have become the more popular and neat expression of emotional confrontation. The uneasy calm this creates in the film makes the plainspoken moments, mostly concerning Toshiko, all the more riveting. The smile that creeps across Toshiko’s face as she confesses that she invites the young man who she blames for Junpei’s death over for dinner to watch him feel guilty and uncomfortable should have won Kiki a plethora of acting awards but, sadly, did not.
Prefacing a lovely coda, we learn that Kyohei passes away three years later and Ryoto never caught a soccer game with him, as he had intended to do. Time moves on and Kore-eda’s film is at its strongest when it concerns itself with the void between the roles we give our loved ones and the people they turn out to be. As Ryoto and his new family ride away on a bus, it seems that there is teetering acceptance on both Ryoto and Kyohei’s parts but that the death of Junpei cemented their distant, mutually resentful relationship long ago. It’s both a hopeful and honest film, which is harder to pull off than one might think without sentimental oversaturation. The ache of mortality remains prominent even as the curtains are drawn on Still Walking, but there’s a sense that Ryoto has stepped out onto the branch with his full weight for the first time. For a man who has lived under the shadow of his dead sibling while still attempting to answer to himself for 15 years, it’s a crucial step toward living life on his own terms.
Still Walking’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is about par for the course in terms of Criterion’s record, and that’s meant as a huge compliment. Presented in its original 1.83:1 aspect ratio, this director-approved transfer captures the quotidian grace of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film with strong clarity and great detailing. The colors of summer are stunning and the natural wood and sliding screens inside the home show fine texture. Black levels are solid and the grain structure has been retained. This goes double for the audio treatment, which picks up the chops and slices of the food preparation with brilliant clarity. Dialogue shines out front while a fine mixture of the interior activities and the buzzing, whistling summer day outside. An outstanding treatment altogether.
Not the best extras Criterion has ever offered, though far from the weakest. The best thing here is the duel interviews of director Kore-eda and DP Yutaka Yamasaki, who give a good amount of insight into the genesis of the project, the production, and their working relationship. A making-of featurette largely treads on similar grounds but is nonetheless enjoyable and offers some on-set footage. Dennis Lim’s essay on the film and Kore-eda career, "A Death in the Family," is lovingly and brilliantly written. Trailers and recipes for food from the film are also included.
The absence of loved ones and what we imagine our loved ones will become fuels the subtle delights of Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-da’s grounded yet graceful contemplation of the Japanese family in transition.