Koreeda Hirokazu was my introduction to live-action Japanese cinema. (Like a lot of people, my first exposure to Japanese media came in the form of anime—specifically, fan-subbed VHS cassettes of Ranma 1/2, Oh My Goddess!, and Video Girl Ai.) The first Koreeda film I saw was Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004), and I was stunned by the power of its silences. The camera lingered on simple, beautiful compositions—a toy piano, light filtering in through a window. The child actors’ performances had a natural, unforced quality to them. The story was heartbreaking, but never maudlin.
I felt the same way about Maboroshi no hikari (1995), with its long, uninterrupted shots and reliance on natural lighting. Afterlife veered toward sentimentality, but it still had that rough-around-the-edges feel that kept it from feeling like a soap opera.
Distance (2001), while intriguing in its premise, seemed more like a filmmaking experiment than a fully-formed movie. Then came Kūki ningyō (Air Doll, 2009). And…yikes. Many people I respect had very positive things to say about this movie, but I loathed it on a deep level. The stilted dialogue, the cliched “message” (we’re all like blow-up dolls, empty and waiting to be filled up), the number of reviewers who called it “sensual” and “erotic,” when to me it was creepy and unpleasant to watch a mostly mute, doll-like woman walk around naked and occasionally have very sad sex.
Koreeda’s trajectory hasn’t been a clear edgy-to-mainstream path–in the past twenty years his films have been a mix of rougher, more subtle stories and very shiny-looking melodramas. Knowing what’s come before, though, makes Aruite mo aruite mo (Still Walking), his 2008 film about a family reunion, hard to watch—mostly because there are frequent glimmers of the artistry that made movies like Maboroshi and Nobody Knows so beautiful. But those moments are mixed in with blunt voiceover, a generically sentimental soundtrack, and characters explaining a situation when the director could have just let the camera linger on their faces.
Still Walking is the story of the Yokoyama family reunion, which takes place over 24 hours in a small seaside town. It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the death of the oldest son, Junpei, who died saving a drowning child. Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and his sister Chinami (YOU of Nobody Knows), with their respective spouses and children in tow, have come to spend the weekend. Ryota has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son, which his superstitious mother (Kirin Kiki) clearly doesn’t approve of (the widow quickly sees through her polite facade). Chinami and her family want to move into the family home to take care of the parents, but the parents are wary. The father (Yoshio Harada) is withdrawn and bitter over the death of his son and heir, who was to take over his medical practice.
There are a few harsh words and heartfelt statements over the course of the weekend, but mostly it’s business as usual, and we get the sense that this is how this family has always interacted with one another—with warmth and affection, but also a great deal of deep-seated resentment and frustration. The film works best in its mundane moments—when the adults and children cook together in the kitchen, when the adults talk while the children run around just outside, or when Ryota and his wife and stepson joke with each other before going to bed.
What’s maddening is when a beautiful moment is created and then ruined with unnecessary dialogue or cutaways. At one point the family is visited by a man who, we learn, is the child that older son Junpei died to save. The man is sweaty, awkward, and doesn’t seem to be making much of his life, and it’s clear in the forced politeness of the father and mother that they regret their son’s act of charity. But then the man leaves, and the father feels the need to explain to us at length that he is a “fat loser” and that Junpei shouldn’t have died for him.
There’s also an unnecessary voiceover before the film’s coda, which tells us a lot that we probably could have guessed. And then there’s the soundtrack—plaintive guitar plucking that sounds straight out of a soap opera. Thankfully it doesn’t appear too often, but when it does it’s a distraction.
Even with those flaws, Still Walking is a very decent movie. In some places it’s even moving, and while it doesn’t have enough of the interesting framing and lighting choices of some other Koreeda films, such images do pop up occasionally and are wonderful to look at—a sunlight-filled window through which the adults watch children playing outside; the house entryway with shoes lined up and some of the family’s faces hidden as they enter; long, single takes of everyone around a table. But it’s hard, knowing that a director is capable of infinitely more interesting things, to see them produce something so safe. This may simply be the kind of film that Koreeda wanted to make in 2008, but I wish he’d make more of the ones that don’t look quite so polished.