Hirokazu Kore-eda's films are haunted by the specter of death -- from the exquisite undercurrent of loss infusing "Maborosi"' to the explicitly gimmicky conceptualization of the hereafter in "After Life" to the looming danger hovering over the abandoned children of "Nobody Knows". His latest, "Still Walking," again takes up questions of mortality. As the Yokoyama family reconvenes for what we gradually realize is a memorial day commemorating the eldest son's death, remaining siblings Ryo (Hiroshi Abe) and Chinami (You) quietly grapple with the aging of their elderly parents. From the start, small moments gesture toward the transition from one generation to another; mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) explains that the sushi at the store down the street isn't as fresh since the son took over the business. Father Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor, takes step-grandson, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) -- by way of Ryo's marriage to widow Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) -- aside to encourage him in the direction of his former profession.
But much like Olivier Assayas's gorgeous "Summer Hours"-- a more direct meditation upon the passing of parents -- "Still Walking" rarely feels gloomy; it hums too much with the buzz of life. Characters stream in and out of Kore-eda's fixed frames during mealtimes, the family as organism on display. Sounds of cicadas and crickets often suffuse the soundtrack and provide a calming counterpoint to the bustle of activity. And in lovely, unadorned sequences, the director renders the magic present in even mundane moments: At one point, Yukari and Chinami's children, often audible in the background even if offscreen, wander away, and the camera trails after them; Kore-eda captures their outstretched hands caressing a pink blossom against a white sky.
But life also entails the tricky negotiation of delicate family dynamics and demands. Ryo is out of work and refuses to tell his father, the latter disdainful of his son's refusal to follow in his footsteps and take over the family clinic. Toshiko, on the other hand, notes the downside of her husband's revered career; busy tending to other patients, Kyohei missed his own son's death. And Ryo continues to harbor feelings of resentment over not being the favored child -- that fell to his deceased brother -- even as he attempts to figure out his role as a fairly new stepfather. Meanwhile, Chinami ponders moving her family into her parents' home in preparation for their old age, meeting Toshiko's resistance.
"Still Walking" introduces a number of threads and builds slowly to something cloudily complex. Issues remain persistent and unaddressed, except in the passive-aggressive fashion of many families. Unlike Kiyoshi Kurosawa's also wonderful "Tokyo Sonata" -- another Japanese film released this year dealing in family dysfunction -- "Still Walking" elucidates the quotidian rather than the dramatic or cathartic in familial interactions. More interested here in group dynamics, Kore-eda rarely singles out a lone character, in contrast to Kurosawa's focus on the individual trajectory of each member in a family unit. But the former does visually isolate characters in order to highlight key moments; he heartbreakingly holds Yukari at one point in a rare medium close-up as her smile slowly freezes and then fades away at her mother-in-law's suggestion that perhaps she and Ryo shouldn't have children of their own.
For every such instance illuminating prickly family politics, though, "Still Walking" offers a countering scene of hopeful clarity and tenderness. Bonding over Toshiko's tradition of battering and frying corn kernels, the family, gathered around the kitchen, laughingly banters and ducks the hot oil flying from the pan. Later, Yukari promises Atsushi that his stepfather will "slowly but surely" become as much a part of him as his biological father, just as Ryo enters the room; all three are held lovingly in Kore-eda's intimate frame.
"Still Walking" is marred only by a seemingly tacked-on concluding voice-over and final sequence too pat and obvious, out of sync with the rest of the understated film; more disappointingly, the sequence follows an unassuming one that would've provided a perfectly irresolute and poignant endnote. Fortunately, even an unsatisfying ending can't detract from the overall grace of Kore-eda's film, which, because of its heightened awareness of death is more lovingly attuned to life's fleeting pleasures.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]