Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 05, 2009 3:36 pm 
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24 hours of muted family conflict

Koreeda's new film (new last year, in festivals this year, now in US release) would be a very creditable effort, even something remarkable, if Yasujiro Ozu had never lived or made films. It's a beautifully modulated, subtle study of generations in the classic mold or a family reunion. In many ways it's a quiet gem. It's just that it invites comparison with one of the greatest Japanese directors, and in that company, it shrinks. And even compared to Koreeda's own previous work, it lacks originality.

An adult daughter and son come to visit their parents in the country with their families, and there is an obese young man. There was a brother, Junpei, who died on this day fifteen years ago and he drowned saving this overfed guest.

We soon become absorbed in the moment-to-moment exchanges between the old lady and her squeaky-voiced daughter as they prepare food in the kitchen. Chinami (You /Yukiko Ehara), who has this irritating voice, a former pop singer, played the irresponsible mother in Koreeda's 2004 Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)), a more unusual and powerful film than this one. Perhaps she is meant to inject a comic note. Though he is "still walking," the old man, retired doctor Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada), casts a pall all proceedings. He is withdrawn, gruff, disapproving -- particularly of Ryota, (Hiroshi Abe), whose career of art restoration doesn't seem to measure up. Understandably Ryota hides the fact that he's temporarily out of work. Ryota's new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) is a young widow with a son from her previous marriage, worried that the in-laws don't yet accept her and the boy, Atsushi (Shoehi Tanaka) as family. That's not helped by the fact that Ryota's blunt mother (Kirin Kiki), explicitly contrary to tradition, seems to want to discourage her grown offspring from even having children. Ryota is one of those sons who has had the misfortune to live while his more favored sibling died too soon. We don't have to imagine what the parents think of the fat boy who was saved. The old lady even admits to Ryota that she takes cruel pleasure in his discomfort at being invited on these occasions. There are lots of unhappy survivors here; and yet, there are plenty of funny little moments that happen too. The boy Atsushi, immune from the past and not even related, sees a lot of humor in things. Koreeda makes good use of all these different points of view.

The film creates a certain dramatic excitement by opening up what is mostly a theatrical entertainment at the beginning, oscillating between Yukari, Ryuota, and the boy traveling on the train expressing their apprehensions and doubts; the old man Kyohei taking a walk; and Chinami and her mother in the kitchen chopping and chatting. Chinami's husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) is a car salesman. He has little function in the piece other than to propose to Ryota that he buy an RV, an idea that can only cause embarasment since Ryota neither needs nor can afford a car. Chirnami, her husband and two kids are lucky because they don't matter; they don't have to be compared to the perfect, departed Junpei and found wanting.

An important part of Still Walking is its depiction of still strong Japanese reverence toward departed relatives, a subject celebrated, also in 2008, in Yôjirô Takita's Departures . One sequence is devoted to a ceremonial visit to Junpei's grave, and the way his mother ladles water over his tombstone repeatedly, commenting that it has been a hot day, as if the stone and the lost son were one, will be echoed later in an epologue when the parents themselves have departed.

Obviously Koreeda has put a lot of himself and his own experience into this film, without giving in to to excessive emotion, maintaining on the contrary almost excessive tact. There is both sweetness and honesty here. But it remains unfortunate that this movie invites comparison through its tone and subject matter with Ozu's quiet family dramas but simply doesn't live up to that high standard. To see why, it's best just to watch Early Summer, Tokyo Story, or another of his classics to see. One thing is Ozu's film style, so distinctive (and yet self-effacing) that every camera placement is just right. Koreeda has taken a chance in limiting himself to 24 hours. Within the muted world of a conventional middle-class Japanese family that is an added limitation that he does not altogether overcome. And finally, the fact that no one in the younger generation seems to care much about what they do diminishes them and their relationship with their elders.

There is also the matter of truth to Koreeda's own high level of previous achievement. His earlier notable feature, Maboroshi, is a strange, haunting, magical study of a widow searching for meaning after the apparent suicide of her husband. Nobody Knows, an intimate, disturbing narrative of four children left to fend for themselves by an irresponsible mother, shows an amazing ability to find metaphor in the concrete. Still Walking not only treads on ground already walked by the master, Ozu, but is otherwise a film that stylistically might have been made by a number of other directors. For all its accomplishment, not the least of which are a cluster of fine performances, Still Walking still seems like a misstep. One just expects something more interesting, more powerful, more haunting from this director than this muted, competent, quietly touching, but otherwise pedestrian work.

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