Blu-Ray Review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Still Walking’ Impossible to Resist

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CHICAGO – Jaded moviegoers eager to have their faith restored in the power of the medium are advised to see Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gorgeously lensed, effortlessly involving masterwork. This acclaimed family drama from 2008 has been granted a stellar Criterion release that further illuminates its meticulous beauty and the deeply meaningful connection it has to its filmmaker’s past.

With a delicacy and nuance highly reminiscent of the legendary Japanese master of cinema Yasujirô Ozu, Kore-eda creates the illusion that his tangible, lived-in world continues far beyond the edges of the frame. His background in documentary filmmaking has intensified his perceptive eye for detail and gift for visual improvisation. Yutaka Yamasaki’s camera is often perched at the level of the characters in “Still Walking,” allowing the audience to become fully enveloped in their day-to-day lives. Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 5.0/5.0

The first sound heard in the picture is that of carrots being peeled by Toshiko (an unforgettable Kirin Kiki), the matriarch of the Yokoyama family on the eve of their long-awaited reunion. Estranged son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is reluctantly heading back home with his wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), recently widowed from a previous marriage, and his stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Parental disapproval over this pairing could’ve easily bloomed into predictable melodrama, but Kore-eda allows the characters’ repressed feelings to be conveyed primarily through subtle gestures rather than grand declarations. Ryota’s gruff father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), is not at all pleased that his grown son has turned out to be an unemployed art restorer rather than join the family profession and become a doctor. Nasally-voiced sister Chinami (pop star You) functions as somewhat of a comic relief by breaking the tension with her well-meaning asides. Kore-eda’s masterful orchestration of overlapping dialogue allows for multiple character dynamics to be registered simultaneously, particularly when the family is gathered at the table for a mouth-watering meal. Like Abdellatif Kechiche’s equally personal family portrait, “The Secret of the Grain,” “Still Walking” fetishizes its home cooking to such a degree that the aroma practically seems to waft through the screen (the Criterion edition’s adjoining booklet includes recipes for several of the film’s dishes).

Hiroshi Abe stars in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking.
Hiroshi Abe stars in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

As the Yokoyamas page through old family photos and trade cherished memories, they unearth remnants of a past that Ryota is unwilling to face, such as the fact that in his youth, he once wished to follow in his father’s footsteps. With its measured pacing and still framing, the film moves at the same rhythm as an Ozu picture like “Floating Weeds,” but Kore-eda is a more haunted filmmaker, grappling with the fears of mortality that loom over the characters even in the midst of a sun-drenched afternoon. Ryota’s beloved older brother died fifteen years earlier after saving a man from drowning. One of the film’s most quietly powerful moments occurs in the aftermath of the saved man’s annual visit to the household. The awkwardness in the room is palpable, since the man has grown up to be unemployed and wholly unremarkable. As soon as he leaves, the family breaks out into cathartic laughter. Their ridiculing humor barely conceals the pain tucked within the corners of their smiles. The only family member who refuses to participate in the mockery is Ryota, who later asks his mother why she won’t let the poor man off the hook. “We invite him so he won’t forget,” confesses Toshiko, finally laying bare the cruelty fueled by her despair. “Not having someone to hate makes me feel worse.” It’s precisely these moments of raw honesty and universal truth that make “Still Walking” an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Still Walking was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feb. 8, 2011.
Still Walking was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Feb. 8, 2011.
Photo credit: The Criterion Collection

“Still Walking” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), and includes a remarkably candid interview with Kore-eda, who openly admits that he made the film in order to bring closure to his relationship with his mother. It was her death that finally prompted the filmmaker to explore the material, resulting in the creation of Toshiko, a character whose mannerisms are almost entirely inspired by the filmmaker’s memories. Everything from the food she prepares and clothes she wears to roughly half the dialogue she delivers is taken directly from Kore-eda’s mother, who also sported a generally conservative view of life. Kore-eda says that the film was also an opportunity for him to confront the conservatism within himself, though he claims that he took a detached approach to tackling personal subject matter. He criticizes Ryota, the character he based on himself, for his pettiness and tendency to make mountains out of molehills. One of the most interesting moments in the interview is when he dismisses the critics’ consistent claim that his work is similar to that of Ozu. Kore-eda actually likens his films to the considerably bleaker work of Mikio Naruse (director of “Ukigumo”), primarily because of his “refusal to condemn characters who fail to grow.”

In an equally fascinating 13-minute interview with Yamasaki, the 45-year veteran of documentary filmmaking discusses the physical, instinctive process of cinematography, and explains why he always prefers to operate the camera himself. He also praises Kore-eda’s willingness to make discoveries during production while never getting too caught up in his own preconceptions (he prepares storyboards but rarely follows them). The director’s unusual approach is clearly witnessed in the excellent 38-minute making-of documentary, which captures key moments of spontaneity as they unfold on the set. We witness how the director’s interest in nearby crape myrtles transform the clusters of flowers into a poignant visual motif, or how an overturned boat on the shore becomes a final symbol of impending mortality. Kore-eda notes that it was his intention to portray “reverberations and omens of death” surrounding this bittersweet moment in the character’s lives. The featurette ends by paraphrasing Ryota’s line, “I’m always a little late,” perhaps reflecting Kore-eda’s own regret that his mother was never alive to see the finished product. Yet her spirit is very much alive and well, forever etched within the fabric of this magical, transcendently moving picture.

‘Still Walking’ is released by The Criterion Collection and stars Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka, Kirin Kiki and Yoshio Harada. It was written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It was released on Feb. 8, 2011. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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