'Still Walking': 'Tokyo Story' for the 21st Century
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Sept. 4, 2009
Everybody likes corn tempura. Never had it? Me, neither. But given how little the characters in "Still Walking" agree on, and how much they all agree on corn tempura, it must have magical properties.
It certainly has the power to make people forget their resentments, and their differences. And the dead son who stalks each tatami-covered room in Japanese director Hirozaku Kore-eda's understated but utterly spectacular film. As he has proved in the past, Kore-eda has a novelistic approach to storytelling and a puckish approach to death: His poetical debut, "Maborosi," was a somber tale about a woman in mourning; "After Life" was a comedy about people in Heaven.
In his latest, "Still Walking," a somewhat typical middle-class Japanese family struggles to maintain a surface domestic tranquillity while roiling -- 15 years after the fact -- over the death of its eldest son. It's a comedy of good manners, an elegy for lost potential and a cultural moment caught mid-shift.
It's also one of the more accomplished and beautiful films released thus far this year, and further establishes Kore-eda -- not quite 50 and one of his country's great directors -- as an artist utterly in control of his medium, one with a watchmaker's appreciation for synchronized intimacies and mechanical fluency. One fears to blink, because some essential element in the story will be lost and, with it, some nuance, of which there are many.
Kore-eda's obvious model is Yasujiro Ozu's celebrated "Tokyo Story" of 1953, which focused on the Japanese family as the principal seismograph of societal upheaval. On the anniversary of the death of Junpei -- who died saving a young boy from drowning -- his family gathers for the annual commemoration. The surviving son, Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), reluctantly attends, with his bride and her young son. That Ryo has married a widow displeases his father, a retired doctor of formal mien named Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), who is pleased by very little: He grumbles, he stalks about his house ignoring his guests.
When the young boy whom his son saved shows up to pay his respects -- he has grown into an overweight, barely employed young man, clearly oppressed by the weight of Junpei's death -- Kyohei wonders aloud what everyone is thinking: Why did the kid live and his son die? Kyohei is as uncharming in his candidness as one might suggest.
And yet, he's hardly an alien: His chauvinistic attitude toward women is shared by his son -- neither will carry a shopping bag, no matter how weighed down his wife is. And both share the idea that one is defined and validated by one's work: Kyohei has retired, and thus opted out of usefulness; Ryo, who has lived in the shadow of his brother, is not a success, but can never be one, mostly because he sees himself through his father's eyes. Kore-eda's art lies in making all this angst as palatable as corn tempura.
Kore-eda's use of ironically whimsical and decidedly non-Japanese music, his casting of Abe -- who looks distinctly Amer-Asian, and thus Other -- and the Westernized attitudes of Kyohei's children all make a piquant statement about the Americanization of Japan since the war, and the time-honored bonds of family and ritual that dissolved under the pressures of a new world. The figure who closest represents an intractable consistency is the mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and she's hardly compliant -- she cooks, she serves, she puts up a hospitable front. But when her daughter Chinami (the actress named You) makes plans to move back home with her family, Mom balks. Dad's enough of a hassle. After a lifetime of tradition and tragedy, Toshiko wants to kick off the straw sandals and relax.
Still Walking (unrated, 114 minutes) is in Japanese with English subtitles.