Understated emotion at an uneasy reunion
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Still Walking’’ begins with the sound of vegetables being peeled and ends with a view of the ocean. The mundane (and necessary) juxtaposed with the eternal (and life-giving): What better way to frame a family drama? In between comes a work whose simplicity and restraint recall the films of Yasujiro Ozu - even as a concluding crane shot that bestows that view of the sea bows to perhaps the most famous shot in all Japanese film, the end of Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu.’’
It’s a hot summer day, and the Yokoyama family is uneasily meeting for one of its semi-annual reunions. The children are middle-aged. The younger son, Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a 10-year-old son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). The daughter (You) has a likably oafish husband and two children who are around Atsushi’s age.
The mother (Kirin Kiki) dominates the kitchen. It’s her kitchen, after all, since the setting is the house where she and her husband raised the children and in which the parents still live. Outside the kitchen, Mrs. Yokoyama seemingly defers to all. Yet over the course of the 24 hours the movie traces she’s revealed to have a slyly recalcitrant wit and, in a scene as remarkable for its understatement as its emotional impact, a capacity to exact sustained emotional vengeance.
The father (Yoshio Hirada) is a retired physician who barely speaks to his son. His flinty dismissiveness toward nearly everyone (he does warm up a bit to Atsushi) makes Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond’’ seem like Mister Rogers. The excessiveness of Dr. Yokoyama’s behavior mars a script otherwise notable for its nuanced detail and sense of emotional fineness.
We never meet the character who has the biggest impact on the family. It’s the elder son, who drowned a dozen years earlier. “Even when they die,’’ a character remarks, “people don’t really go away.’’ The words are meant as consolation - but the presence of the dead can lacerate as well as console.
Kore-eda, whose previous films include “After Life’’ and “Nobody Knows,’’ builds his story out of small moments: the playing of an old 45, pouring water over a gravestone, the fluttering of a yellow butterfly (three butterflies, actually, each appearing at different places). He hardly ever moves the camera, but there’s nothing static about “Still Walking.’’ The presence of three kids sees to that, as does the eloquence of Kore-eda’s framing and compositions. He has an admirable eye. It’s almost as admirable as his heart.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.