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Still Walking
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by Jay Seaver

"Somewhere between a familial bliss and a trap."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: Among my moviegoing friends, I have gained a not-undeserved reputation for lacking patience with French dysfunctional family dramas. I contend that this is a bit unfair; while I did, in fact, bang my head against the back of my seat during the likes of "A Christmas Tale" and "The Secret of the Grain" while muttering my wishes that the characters DO SOMETHING, it has nothing to do with the subtitles. I do the same thing when watching English-language mumblecore, after all. These friends naturally assumed I hated "Still Walking", but that's not the case. I rather enjoyed it.

Why is this? The setting, perhaps. Where watching American or French people stew in their own resentment just frustrates me, as I have too clear an idea of how I would not put up with that sort of situation (at least in my mind), Japanese culture is just different enough that it excites my curiosity. Yokohama is also a neat-looking city, as photographed by Yutaka Yamasaki. Yet I think the biggest difference is something else - I don't get the sense that most of the characters in Still Walking have surrendered to their issues; family relationships are tricky, but not a trap.

The family here is the Yokoyamas. Patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) is a retired doctor in his late sixties. As the film starts, his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is preparing food with their daughter Chinami (the singly-named You) while Kyohei stays in his office, pretending to attend to patient records despite his clinic being closed. Chinami's husband Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi) soon arrives with their children Satsuki and Mutsu. Also on the way is second son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), along with wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). First son Junpei died a twelve years ago, rescuing a floundering swimmer, and the family is gathering to mark the anniversery. There are, of course, tensions lurking between the Yokoyamas. The house shrine features a photograph of Junpei in his lab coat, highlighting Kyohei's disappointment that Ryota did not also follow in his footsteps and inherit the clinic, instead choosing a career in art restoration. There's prejeudice against marrying a widow, and somewhat self-righteous debate among the other family members over whether or not Ryota and Yukari having children of their own would be a good idea.

Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda does a fine job in not inflating these conflicts into melodrama. Instead, he does an excellent job of showing us how the two characters who are the most obviously at odds, Ryota and Kyohei, perhaps love each other the most - or at least want to. Similarly, for as friendly as Toshiko and Chinami appear, their relationship doesn't have nearly the same depth of feeling as the father and son. He establishes a number of parallel situations of people wanting acceptance and approval - Ryota would like to please his father and his stepson, Yukari hopes the Yokoyamas will look past the stigma of her being "used", especially considering how casually Junpei's absent widow is dismissed - but doesn't force the similarities upon us.

That's not to say the movie lacks drama - Koreeda just saves it for a handful of gut punches at the end. Up until that point, we see a family still devastated by tragedy that may not be handling it well, but is trying their best, even if that frequently means giving each other space. Koreeda then reveals something toxic which causes us to review a few scenes, and maybe not change our minds, but gain some appreciation for how well those scenes had been played.

The cast is great. Hiroshi Abe is understated but sincere as a man in his forties still somewhat cowed by his father, always trying to do right by everyone. Yui Natsukawa gets across Yukari's need to be accepted without making the character look weak, and Shohei Tanaka does well as the kid who is not knowingly so in need of a family (Ryoga Hayashi and Hotaru Nomoto are great fun as the other kids). I was less fond of You. Part of that may be carryover from Koreeda's Nobody Knows, there's something about her voice that made her seem perfect for the irresponsible mother in that movie but grates in this one, where she's supposed to be smarter than that child-woman. On the other hand, I can't say enough good things about Yoshio Harada and Kirin Kiki, who do such a fabulous job of embodying the generational difference present in all families (magnified by traditional Japanese stoicism) that it's not unti the end that we realize they've been wearing their hearts on their sleeves the whole time, and we just didn't know how to read it.

Does a great deal happen in this movie? No, not really - it's (mostly) one day, and the revelations at the end don't change much (and aren't really worth the word). It's told with a deft touch, though, and if it isn't optimistic, it's at least not generally cynical.

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originally posted: 05/02/09 06:51:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hirokazu Koreeda

Written by
  Hirokazu Koreeda

  Hiroshi Abe
  Yoshio Harada
  Ryōga Hayashi
  Haruko Kato
  Kirin Kiki

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