Like a film by Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film Still Walking is a patient family drama with a lot of heart. The compositions are often precisely composed and contain minimal movement as the camera observes daily life and conversation. Perhaps most comparable to Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), Still Walking follows Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) and Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) - a married couple - and their son Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka) during a twenty-four hour annual visit to Ryota’s parents' home to remember the passing of his older brother who died saving another man. Yukari was a widow who had given birth to Atsushi with her previous husband before marrying Ryota, and this particular trip is their first time to visit Ryota’s parents as a family. Still Walking is a film about gender roles in Japanese society, generational gaps and differences, and - in broad terms - life itself.
Kore-eda’s Still Walking opens with several topics of concern within Japanese cinema and society - one of which being gender roles. The opening shot is a close-up of some carrots being skinned by an old woman (Ryota’s mother) and other vegetables are being cut by her daughter. The pace of this scene is quick as they rapidly skin their food and talk about the recipe that they are currently preparing. When the daughter hears her father walking down the hall past the kitchen, she asks him to go get some milk from the store and he doesn’t respond. She calls for him again, but her mother then tells her, “He doesn’t want to be seen by the neighbors with a grocery bag.” The following scene is of the father as he walks - with his cane in hand - through his neighborhood. Distant and static, the camera never wavers as he passes in silence from camera right to camera left through each shot. Before Ryota and his wife and step-son arrive, his mother talks to Ryota’s sister about how disgraceful it is that Ryota married a “used model”. Her rationality is that Ryota’s wife lost her husband rather than choosing to leave him, so it is greatly disappointing to them that Ryota would marry into that. Ryota’s mother and father (the father to a lesser extent) that the spirits of the dead are still among us, so Ryota’s wife is essentially engaged in infidelity since her previous husband is dead. What Ryota’s parents don’t know (and never find out) is that Ryota is currently unemployed - something that he urges his wife and step-son not to reveal to them. To Ryota, not having a job is emasculating in the same way that Toshiro Mifune’s character in Kurosawa’s 1949 film Stray Dog is essentially castrated as a cop when he loses his gun. Though his parents never find out about his lack of employment, it’s implied that his parents would think poorly of him - specifically when the man that Ryota’s brother died to save comes over for his annual visit. When he leaves, Ryota’s father calls the man a piece of trash and junk because he doesn’t have a job which greatly offends Ryota. “Don’t talk about people like that in front of my son,” says Ryota as he struggles to earn his step-son’s approval. Even though Ryota does not want to be affected by his father’s world view, simply by being a Japanese man who is unemployed, Ryota struggles with his sense of honor and self-worth within his patriarchal home. The only time during the film that the camera is handheld is when the mother becomes filled with joy at the thought that a butterfly that has entered her home is in fact the spirit of her deceased son. The camera rocks and pans to follow the butterfly from her perspective as it lands on their memorial to their son. Her joyous inner-woman is celebrated in these camera movements - a stark difference in comparison to the rigid camera that photographs the male experience in Still Walking.
As much as Still Walking is a film about gender roles in Japanese society, it is just as much a film about generational gaps. Ryota and his family are introduced on a train as they travel to arrive at his parent’s home. His step-son, Atsushi, is playing on his Gameboy (a scene reminiscent of the kids in Tokyo Story who were disrespectful to their family - making it a universal family setup). While Atsushi is playing on his Gameboy, Ryota is complaining to his wife about having to see his parents for a full twenty-four hours. He even goes as far as suggesting that his wife fake “an emergency PTA school meeting” so that they can hop back on the train home as soon as possible. Other than his shame of not having a job, his key excuse for not wanting to be with his parents is that there is never anything to talk about. However, when they arrive at his parent’s home, talking is about all they actually do. Ryota’s life has changed considerably since they last saw him, and their disapproval of him marrying a widow certainly plays a factor in their discussions as the generational gap seems to stare them all in the face. Still Walking seems to begin expressing that children and their values are fluid and constantly in flux, compared to adults who are often solidified in their beliefs and convictions. After they have their family dinner, Kore-eda cuts to a shot of the Sun setting against the Japanese skyline as it begins to set across the horizon. This image feels like a reference to Nagisa Oshima’s 1960 film The Sun’s Burial - which is a film almost entirely about the fear of future generations and events. The Sun’s Burial is an odd point of comparison for Still Walking as it is greatly different in tone and style, but when Ryota’s parents begin talking about music, the use of diegetic and non-diegetic music begins to show itself as a potential connection to Oshima’s rebellious film. Throughout both The Sun’s Burial and Still Walking there is an original soundtrack that is primarily on an acoustic guitar. Both guitar scores sound very solemn and seem to convey the end of life or a the end of a generation. Within both of these films is similar diegetic music (music coming from a source of music within the scene) such as a club in The Sun’s Burial or a record player in Still Walking. The context of the music is different, but the effect is quite telling in both film. In The Sun’s Burial, the club music is contemporary and is a piece of a dying generation (the Sun Tribe) where as the actual soundtrack is implying the future of this generation. In Still Walking, the diegetic music is a piece of the past (it’s even considered silly by the mother’s son Ryota) as the mother and father recollect their past life. That it is their past life is only reinforced by the slow guitar soundtrack.
Capturing the small details of life in his well-crafted screenplay, Kore-eda creates a portrait of a family gathering comparable many of our American Thanksgiving dinners. Highlighting the innocence of children in the presence of their grandparents, Still Walking has an authenticity to it that makes the characters feel like much more than “characters” - they are a mirror. The things that children learn about their parents from their grandparents is experienced in Still Walking as it is in reality. We hear stories of the things that our parents were into as children and the things that we want to be, but merely in little chunks, just as Atsushi learns that Ryota once wanted to be a doctor so that he could be just like his dad. Ryota is ashamed of his past desire to be like his father, but when he is reminded that he is supposed to be the family heir, he lightens up as he realizes that his father approves of him. Still Walking paints a picture of life, but every great painting of life is really a painting of death. Though this is a family drama, it has subtle elements of a revenge story. The young man that was saved by Ryota’s brother is essentially being psychologically tortured by Ryota’s parents to atone for the death of their son. They want him to come back every year on the anniversary of their son’s death just so that he doesn’t forget that he is alive because someone died for him. Ryota’s mother specifically insists that she would rather get bad karma for making the man feel obligated to come to their home every year then to let him slide by. It’s a quiet vengeance that is found within us all, not the cinematic bloody tale of revenge that frequents the silver screen. Still Walking is almost a still life of human emotion, with the soul of the characters being exemplary of “the cinema of flourishes” that David Bordwell described Japanese cinema to be.
Still Walking is perhaps best categorized as a stylistic descendent of the films of Ozu and Mizoguchi, and as a result it has also been made with the history of the Japanese culture and cinema in the background. Kore-eda has molded an emotional slice of life that resonates with the canon of film history. Taking the history of generational angst from Oshima and fusing it with the emasculation of the Japanese population in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, Still Walking manages to portray three different layers of generational disconnect while making each one individually distinct (and yet clearly the same). Life keeps on going and generations will continue disagreeing, but in the end we’re all of the same kind.