In his new piece on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking, Maccewill Yip is finally able to brush aside the constant critical comparisons to other Japanese directors and see the filmmaker in his own light.

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I saw Still Walking a few years ago when I read blurbs that compared it to films by Yasujirō Ozu. Both are known for their family dramas, have shots that are sometimes low and barely moving, and contains interstitial “pillow shots” that film various environmental shots to set the atmosphere rather than being narrative. So at the time of that first viewing I would fully agree, but now, having rewatched this film along with his newest one, Shoplifters, I begin to see what separates the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, from the old master.

For one thing, and this might sound like a contradiction, Kore-eda style is warmer, but underneath the lightness, his characters usually have darker past or intentions that is uncovered as the story reveals itself. It is the reason for the grandmother, Toshiko, constantly inviting the person her son died saving in Still Walking, or the true past history of the “parents” in Shoplifters. Although both filmmakers have beautiful, painterly shots, Ozu’s seemed to be more composed and arranged, whereas Kore-eda looks more naturalistic and discovered. Another difference is that Ozu’s characters are usually more austere, facing the camera head-on and often putting on a look of facade, their emotions usually read by how we as an audience wants to read them, and often don’t break emotionally until they are alone. Kore-eda’s characters, on the other hand, wear their hearts on their sleeves in a way that slowly creates expositions of their past and their feelings through their reaction to a statement or an action. Finally, Ozu usually stays within the smaller, personal drama, whereas Kore-eda opens up his stories towards social commentary.

As with any film that depict a family gathering, there is inevitably going to be themes of generational differences. The grandparents are, of course, the conservative viewpoints, who had hopes that their son would have grown up to be a doctor and take over the clinic, but disappointed in the career choice he eventually made and somewhat disapproving of his marriage to a widow with a child from her previous marriage. There are the grandchildren, who are mostly playing carefree but just getting the hint of the trouble the adults are dealing with. In between is Ryota, who is caught between the expectations of his parents and the path he has charted himself. However, with the generational difference trope, there is usually also what the generation shares. Kore-eda does it in a way that reminds me of Joss Whedon’s works in that you sometimes create closer ties with those around you than the family you already have. Both Kore-eda films I’ve seen have this moment in a bathtub: stepfather and stepson in Still Walking; a woman and a girl she houses to protect her from her real parents in Shoplifters.

Still Walking is mainly a film about unfulfilled expectations. There is the main one that hangs over the family: the death of Junpei. He was supposed to grow up and take over his father’s clinic but drowned while saving a random person. The boy he had saved, Yohio, grew up and became, in the eyes of Junpei’s parents, a fat slob who has done nothing in his life but work making ads for grocery flyers. Junpei’s brother, Ryota, defends Yoshio, seemingly because he sees himself in the poor man, having disappointed his father by not studying to be a doctor and instead working in art restoration. There are even small promises that are made within the day the movie was set, like going together to catch a soccer game or seeing them again for New Year’s, but never come to pass, as revealed in the epilogue.

However, there are points in the film when it’s shown that the expectations are only followed because of the current social norms. The grandmother mentions how, back in her day, she couldn’t be seen openly enjoying a drink because of how it was viewed at the time. She also says that it was better to marry a divorcee than a widow, because she had a choice of falling out of love and leaving her husband. She might be also referring to herself. Seeing both grandparents, it’s hard to see a time when they loved one another. Even the song Toshiko say they share doesn’t seem to be reciprocated by her spouse. In fact, there’s a hint that the moment they first shared the song might have been one of infidelity.

Death hangs over the family. It is what brings them together for the day shown in the film. Although most Asian families come together in memory of the dead, the family in the film, especially the grandparents, have a hard time letting go and moving on. It’s why they continually invite Yoshio, to have him remember and suffer as they have over the years. There are shots in the film where Junpei’s image looms around, still haunting the family.

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At the end, it’s revealed through the epilogue that the grandparents would pass away two years later, with Kyota and his family visiting their grave years later. Director Kore-eda even sums it up as such:

“Thus, the actual time frame of the story is filled with living people, but there was a death before it, and there will probably be a death after it. ‘Sandwiched between two deaths, filled with the reverberations of one and the omens of another.’ That was the first thing I wrote in my notebook before writing the script. Reverberations and omens.”

There is actually a third death, but it affects a smaller sect of the family: the widow, Yukari, and her son, Atsushi. There is a moment where Yukari tells Atsushi that half of herself and half of his father is in him, but hopefully he allows a part of his stepfather, Kyota, as well. We later see Atsushi learn to accept both, praying to his father that when he grows up, he wants to either be a piano tuner like he was or a doctor like his stepfather’s father.

I know I make the movie sound sad and bleak, but the thing is that most of this is an undercurrent subtext in the film. On the surface, there’s a lightness and loveliness that belies all the darker undertones. Despite everything, the family members do love each other, and it shows during the wonderful shots of little moments, such as cooking and playing. And that’s what’s great about this film, how it is able to present something so beautiful and mundane, but infuse it with the dissatisfaction and regrets that makes us human. The first time I watched the film was in the shadow of Ozu, but after rewatching it, along with my viewing of Shoplifters, I now view Kore-eda as an artist all his own.

Other Notes

– The original idea, which was set in the ’60s, was shelved until he brought it back out after the death of his own mother, in which the grandmother is based on.

– It just so happens that Kirin Kiki plays the grandmother figure in both Kore-eda films I’ve seen.

– At the end, the grandparents climb the stairway until they’re out of the shot, when the Kyota’s voiceover narration said they passed away two years later. First, the whole shot is like they are slowly ascending to heaven. Second, Kore-eda said that, if he were to film it now, he would not have had the narration. Although I would understand, the narration, which mentions not being able to join his father in a soccer game, reinforces the theme of unfulfilled expectations in the film and how we sometimes don’t change.

– Even though Kore-eda is often compared to Ozu, he sees himself as more of a spiritual descendent to another great Japanese director, Naruse.

— Maccewill Yip

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