It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.
The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.
Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.
Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the viewer make sense of things. There is, alas, merely the old noise coming to the fore again, with the closest thing to melodrama — Toshiko’s casual, almost throwaway remark that she knows of Kyohei’s unfaithfulness, many decades prior — allowed to fizzle out into a few brief words, never to be brought up again, neither in the film, nor in the characters’ off-screen lives: if such a thing can be imagined. And in a way, it can, for the film’s true drama is in the fact that no character seems to have a clear picture of him or herself; that if these characters were to be ripped from this context and put into another, they’d still be full on the same problems, for it is Junpei’s (Ryota’s more-loved brother, who died 15 years before) presence that helps the family put an image to their sense of things. This is true of Ryota, whose insecurity can now have a face; this is true of the aging couple, whose present disappointments are given an extrinsic reason; and this is true of Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved from drowning, sacrificing himself in the process, for Yoshio now hates himself, and has this reminder to inveigle him, year after year, ever-deeper into this hatred, as he’s continually invited to participate in Junpei’s meinichi for the sake of forcing him to suffer.
In time, we learn that Kyohei hates his living son while the couple openly resent the widow Yukari as a “used” woman, and passive-aggressively ignore her son. This is not done with sign-posts or alarums, but gradually, with some of their worst comments nestled between banal, perfectly normal domestic scenes: a glimpse, really, into how this sort of hatred appears in real life. And Yukari — in a show reminiscent of Setsuko Hara’s character in Tokyo Story — understands this, accepts it, but does not, despite her anger (all the more effective for being so rarely seen), allow it in any way to define her, as if she is above the fray. That these jabs are so hidden, at times, makes their interactions all the realer, for the effect is an accretion (the narrative, really, of 99%+ of all day-to-day drama), as opposed to an explosion (rare, and often melodramatic). Nor does Koreeda merely give rein to the old couple’s selfishness, as it is tempered by the possibility that Toshiko is merely aged, and purely of this age. She is, for instance, almost sweet to Yukari near the film’s end, even encouraging her to have children with Ryota, only to renege on this allowance out of perceived “awkwardness” for Atsushi, which might be less of a snipe than a mere defense mechanism from a time when such considerations were all too necessary. Yet this, too, can have a counter-argument, in that Toshiko’s permissiveness might be due to the fact that she cares remarkably little for Ryota, and can’t possibly be shamed by any decision he might make, for nothing after Junpei — in the hierarchy they’ve created for and of themselves — can really matter.
But while the couple’s bitterness might be the film’s superficial focus, the deeper aspect is how the film’s characters organize their lives around it. You, while critical of her parents, at times, does not wish to prod them over-much, as we learn her eyes are set on getting her parents’ property — a fact that makes her lukewarm behavior more understandable upon re-watch, even as one gets the sense that she would never be as bad with anyone but her family. This is a duality that comes up over and over again, both in the younger characters, as well as in Kyohei, who gives the impression of toughness, austerity, and hard work, only to be caught staring out of windows by the camera (which, although willing to lie quite often, cannot lie for him here). The man, in truth, is more or less retired, perhaps even irrelevant, and nowhere is this more obvious than in one the final scenes, wherein a neighbor is taken away on a stretcher and he comes out to intervene. The medical personnel ignores him, for he’s old, washed-up, and has little authority, it seems, save for within his own family, who’ve been hammered by decades of put-downs and ‘expectations’ related to a career that, for all of Kyohei’s praise of such, does not seem to have served him much, at all, in the ways that truly matter. And nowhere is Ryota’s own beliefs about Kyohei more evident than in the look he gives his father, here, for Ryota has now understood all this. No, Ryota says nothing, but vindication — at least for a split-second — is written into the script’s margins, and the two characters must simply follow the cues.
Yoshio, too, is one of Still Walking’s greatest assets, for his presence entrains much of the family into a hatred that they can all indulge in, watching his fat body move and eat, give thanks, and take things that once belonged to them, all the while hammering them with a false sense of happiness that they can’t even aspire to. In fact, for all of the family’s comments (that he is “trash,” “worthless”), Ryota is the only one to keep quiet, even chiding the others for their bitterness. Yet to the viewer’s surprise, even Yukari, despite her sweetness, gets in on it, finding Yoshio’s dirty socks quite funny (as does Atsushi), ignoring Ryota’s entreaties as they all laugh, implicitly calling into question her husband’s own steely response. Nor is Ryota the film’s ‘angel,’ for while he does get a chance to bridge the family gap, he never does, with his and Kyohei’s well-wishes brilliantly occluded by a shot of a ship that has run aground. In fact, it is this image that makes the film’s last revelation its only logical conclusion, for it’s been engineered into the characters long ago, and is merely waiting for articulation.
No, Hirokazu Koreeda does not have a truly distinctive style — even as the one in this particular film gets culled from so many of Yasujiro Ozu’s dramas — and much of what he looks and even feels like changes from film to film. Yet the deeper point is that everything’s that done here is done remarkably, from the framing of shots, in a way that occludes and highlights characters, to the simple musical choices which, despite being used outside of the film’s primary drama, can still zero-in on it, as if by contrast; scenes of genuine, emotive pull, such as when Yukari bonds with her son, to gently bring him into Ryota’s life; great shots of the children playing, suggesting there’s something more, something better than what the characters have seen for themselves; symbolic touches such as having “Junpei’s” butterfly land on his picture, only to have Ryota forget its import — and his own mother’s comments — at film’s end, thus implying how deeply her presence are still with him, and will continue to shape him, permitted or no. Atsushi, too, is subverted from cipher to one of the film’s key emotional players, as his silence on the sadder parts of his life are belied by his willingness to engage with them, when alone. In this way, he has, unlike Ryota, little to prove to others (as seen in his lie about why he wishes to be a piano tuner), and is one of the film’s healthiest, most ‘whole’ characters, despite seeming like the most vulnerable.
Still Walking is not only Hirokazu Koreeda’s best film, but akin to the great Japanese dramas of yore. This is because for all the exchange of decades, and all of the cosmetic differences such exchange may proffer, the basic blueprint has stayed the same. The bitterness in Tokyo Story is not particular to it; Kyohei’s disappointments, in turn, are not particular to him. Great art is somewhere in these overlaps, and the best artists — which Koreeda is among — will continue to capitalize on this.