Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review - Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)

Although I first saw Hirokazu Kore-Eda's Still Walking way back in 2008, when I named it as the best film of that year's London Film Festival, there's something fitting about the way it has appeared in UK cinemas now, during the BFI's two-month tribute to the work of Yasujirō Ozu. The influence of that great Japanese filmmaker (and that of his contemporary Naruse) is obvious in Kore-Eda's new film, from the deceptively simple shooting style to the familial subject matter. But this is no empty homage; Kore-Eda pays tribute to that earlier era of filmmaking while making Still Walking absolutely his own. It is a film that is both deeply personal and universally resonant, a film that has a classical style but feels completely modern. Still Walking may be indebted to the great directors who went before, but it also confirms Kore-Eda's status as a young master in his own right.

Still Walking documents 24 hours in the life of the Yokoyama family, brought together for a reunion that marks the 15th anniversary of the eldest son's death, making this another Kore-Eda film in which a person's absence is felt almost as much as those who are present. Junpei drowned while rescuing a young boy from the sea, and his death was particularly hard for his father (Yoshio Harada), as Junpei was undoubtedly the favoured son, the one who was going to become a doctor and inherit his father's practice one day. In contrast, Ryo (Hiroshi Abe) left the family to become an art restorer, something his father has not forgiven him for, and his parents disapprove of his marriage to a widow who already has a young son from her previous marriage. So it's no surprise to see Ryo dreading this get-together as he travels home on the train with Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), preparing for an anxious weekend of tensions, petty resentments, and constant reminders of his failure to live up to the impossible standards set by his late brother.

These tensions do occasionally come to the surface, but Kore-Eda generally lets them simmer just underneath it. While we may be anticipating an emotional explosion to provide the climax to the drama, the director maintains an understated and quietly absorbing tone. He fills scenes with the realistic bustle of family behaviour, and allows the dramatic weight to fall on small gestures, moments of silence, or the occasional barbed line of dialogue, which slices through the nostalgic conversation. Kore-Eda orchestrates the dynamics between the three generations of the Yokoyama with incredible skill, providing us with authentic characters, all of whom have their own hopes and regrets, and making them interact with each other in a way that is totally convincing. Other characters drop by during the course of the film; an old family friend making a sushi delivery, and an overweight, awkward and sweaty individual who, we learn, is the man Junpei died trying to save 15 years ago. As has become a tradition, he has been invited on the anniversary to pay his respects, although Ryo is unsettled by the young man's obvious discomfort. "That's why we invite him," his mother (Kirin Kiki) tartly explains, "to see him suffer".

Still Walking is a film filled with a sense of loss, but Kore-Eda finds a pitch-perfect balance between sadness, humour and joy, giving us a picture that encapsulates so much essential truth about family life. Aside from the occasional flourish – such as a transcendent moment involving a butterfly – the director's handling of the material is marked by a beautiful simplicity. His compositions are faultless, and he generates an evocative atmosphere through the accumulation of tiny details – the chopping of radishes, the broken bathroom tiles, the flowers in the garden. Sometimes, his camera will cut away from the main source of the drama to find a character in isolation, but even then we can hear the family chatter echoing around the empty rooms and corridors. He makes us feel like a guest in the Yokoyama family home, and by the time the film has finished, we feel like we know these characters intimately, and yet there is still so much more to know. I have seen Still Walking twice now, and it becomes an even richer, more moving experience on repeated viewings, where the film's subtleties and nuances are ripe for re-examination. I was initially unsure about Kore-Eda's epilogue, which felt a little clumsy and out of place, but my second viewing dispelled those doubts. I can now see how it fits with neatly with the overall piece, and provides a satisfying resolution to a film that is nothing less than a modern masterpiece.