Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film Still Walking takes place in the space of about twenty-four hours, save for a brief epilogue set several years after the main action. Perhaps “action” isn’t quite the right word; after all, not much happens in the way of major events during that twenty-four-hour period. It’s a film of cooking and eating and bathing, of children at play, of conversations and reminiscences and disagreements — and yet, even in that brief window, through both the ordinary and the more extraordinary, it manages to paint a rich portrait of a family’s life in all its complexities.
Although the day portrayed in Still Walking is relatively low-key, it marks the anniversary of a great tragedy, probably the defining event in the Yokoyama family’s history: the death of elder son Junpei, who lost his life as a young man while saving a boy from drowning. Twelve years later, his two siblings and their own families return to their childhood home — where their parents, retired doctor Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) and housewife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), still reside — in order to honor his memory.
“Even when they die, people don’t really go away,” Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) — the wife of Junpei’s younger brother, Ryo (Hiroshi Abe) — tells her preteen son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). For better or for worse, the Yokoyamas can never forget Junpei, and his absence continues to affect them in innumerable ways. Some of these are practical: for example, the eldest son is traditionally responsible for looking after his aging parents, so with Junpei gone, one of the other children must take on this role. While daughter Chinami (You) is eager to move into Kyohei and Toshiko’s house with her husband and two children, Toshiko herself isn’t sure that she wants them there. She has excuses — the children are noisy, it would be awkward living with a virtual stranger like her son-in-law — but the main reason is that she would rather have Ryo return home permanently. “You know I can’t take my brother’s place,” he says.
He’s not speaking purely from a practical standpoint. Since Junpei’s death — and most likely before it as well — he’s lived in his brother’s shadow, especially in his father’s eyes. Kyohei is a distant, rather difficult man in general, and there’s an undercurrent of mutual hostility in many of his interactions with his younger son. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor, as he once intended, Ryo went into painting restoration (and is currently between jobs, though he’s determined to keep that a secret from his parents). His father accuses him of leaving the family, considers him a disappointment. “You’re so cold. You weren’t like that with Junpei,” Chinami tells Kyohei. Maybe he always favored his firstborn son anyway, but the fact that Junpei didn’t live long enough to disappoint him undoubtedly makes Ryo look even worse by comparison. “Who knows how Junpei would have turned out if he were still alive?” Ryo says. “We’re only human.” Preserved (so to speak) by his early death, Junpei remains an ideal, a vessel for lost dreams, a symbol of what might have been; dealing with the living can be much more challenging.
“People are scary. Everyone is,” says Yukari. The characters of Still Walking are neither heroes nor villains, neither saints nor monsters, but complicated human beings, capable of kindness and cruelty alike. The latter may be seen most clearly when the family invites Yoshio — the now-grown man whom Junpei saved from drowning — over to the house, an annual occurrence. (Junpei’s widow, in contrast, is absent from this gathering, having remarried and lost contact with her late husband’s family, apart from sending them New Year’s cards. “If they’d had children, we could invite her,” Toshiko says.) Yoshio is an awkward, sweaty, overweight, fumbling man whose life appears to be going nowhere. Even in his presence, some of the characters can barely keep themselves from laughing at him, and once he leaves, Kyohei lashes out: “That… that useless piece of trash. Why’d my son have to save him?” Later, Toshiko confesses that she asks him to come back year after year as a kind of punishment, and when Ryo tries to point out that it wasn’t Yoshio’s fault, she replies, “It makes no difference — not to a parent. Not having someone to hate makes it all the worse for me, so once a year I make him feel awful too.”
This cruelty springs from a place of deep pain, of course, much like the resentment that Toshiko still harbors toward her husband for being away at the time of Junpei’s death and the guilt she feels for allowing her son to go to the beach that day. Other acts of unkind, critical or selfish behavior seem pettier, though the characters also have their reasons in those cases. Toshiko, for instance, disapproves of Ryo’s recent marriage to the widowed Yukari because she thinks that he could do better than a so-called “used model.” “Besides,” she says, “it’s better to marry a divorcée than a widow. At least a divorcée chose to leave her husband.” (She goes so far as to suggest that it would be preferable if they don’t have children together; that way, it will be easier for them to divorce in the future.) Making matters worse is the fact that the characters tend to be highly sensitive to perceived offenses: Yukari thinks that Atsushi is being treated like a guest rather than a member of the family, Kyohei complains that his grandchildren keep referring to “Grandma’s house” when it was his work that paid for it, Ryo is annoyed when something clever he said as a child is attributed to Junpei. “What difference does it make?” his father asks.
In a sense, something so trivial makes no difference whatsoever, because in spite of their disagreements, in spite of personality clashes, in spite of death and other changes that have occurred over the years, the Yokoyamas are irrevocably bound together, not merely by blood or marriage but by their shared history — although the trivial can unite them as much as major events. They pass down lore about pinching moles to become rich and butterflies changing colors if they survive the winter, try to remember the name of a particular wrestler. Even something as ostensibly inconsequential as an old pop song — specifically, Ayumi Ishida’s “Blue Light Yokohama,” the lyrics of which provide the film with its title — may hold hidden personal significance. While they can still surprise one another on occasion, one gets the feeling that these characters have been having many of the same conversations and telling many of the same stories for years, and the film has a suitably “lived in” atmosphere. It permits the viewer to gain information gradually, in bits and pieces, instead of employing the kind of heavy-handed exposition that would be unnatural in a setting where the characters know one another and their circumstances so well.
The presence of Yukari and Atsushi, newcomers to the Yokoyama clan, provides a logical reason for some explanations to be given; it also allows the film to examine a blended family, still in the process of coming together and forging more intimate relationships. Yukari, worried about her new in-laws’ opinions, urges her son to call Ryo something like “Dad” instead of using his name. “But Ryo is just Ryo,” Atsushi responds. In fact, it becomes apparent that the boy hasn’t entirely come to terms with his real father’s death three or four years earlier. Visiting the Yokoyamas on the anniversary of their own loss helps him realize that he can remain connected to his father and brings him a little closer to his stepfather at the same time.
In the end, Atsushi and some of the other characters have learned lessons or made a bit of progress in their relationships, but there’s no great dramatic catharsis, no radical change. Family life is too complicated, and Kore-eda’s film too grounded in mundane reality, for everything to be resolved overnight. In the words of “Blue Light Yokohama,” the Yokoyamas are “still walking, on and on.”
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