MIFF09 review: STILL WALKING (dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda)

still walking

Review by Conall Cash (catabloguing.wordpress.com)

Lately it seems like every year a new film shows up that either proclaims itself or is proclaimed by the most audible voices in criticism as an hommage to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. The latest is Still Walking, by Hirokazu Kore-eda, but already in that act of naming its director we notice something that immediately distinguishes this film from the crowd. Ozu adoration takes on many forms, produces very different effects – sublimity in Hou Hsaio-hsien; devastating pathos in Aki Kaurismaki; mysticist mediocrity in Wim Wenders; inert banality in Vincent Gallo – but it is almost never, interestingly, to be seen in the work of a Japanese filmmaker. Ozu’s body of work is so fundamental to the history of Japanese cinema that inevitably it has been ‘internalized’; just as no Hollywood director can entirely evade the influence of John Ford or Howard Hawks, no Japanese filmmaker can make a film that is not ‘after Ozu,’ inflected by his influence upon how cinema is made in Japan. What this typically means is that, unlike foreign directors who respond to particular, individual attributes of Ozu’s cinema – his unmoving, low-to-the-floor camera setups; his expression of the passing of time and of the generations through the visual motif of the changing seasons; or his achievement of meaning through indirection, with complex and painful emotions and ideas conveyed through mundane everyday conversation – a Japanese filmmaker is unlikely to consider these as isolatable, individually definable elements, but rather as constitutive of the very cinematic air he or she naturally breathes. Great Japanese cinema has been made by positively vomiting up this influence, performing a kind of self-asphyxiation rather than permitting this air to enter the lungs, eviscerating its every molecule in the pursuit of new forms – see the films of Shohei Imamura. Kore-eda’s achievement with Still Walking, on the other hand, is effectively to have found a way to breathe the air of Ozu afresh, to reconcile the foundational, inalienably Japanese Ozu with the versions of him found in his foreign disciples; to make a film that is simultaneously a conscious hommage and that takes itself seriously as living, breathing cinema, with responsibilities towards its own identity and those of its characters.

The characters in question are, of course, the members of a family – elderly parents, the father a retired doctor and the mother a lifelong homemaker; their two children (son Royta and daughter Chinami), youngish but approaching middle age, each with a spouse of their own now; and their several children and step-children, all pre-pubescent, with a penchant for toilet humour, but always with far more complex, serious inner lives than we (or their relatives) imagine. The story takes place over a couple of days spent at the old family home (“grandmother’s house,” the kids call it, though the grandfather doesn’t understand why his wife is taken to be its chief possessor and not him), before culminating in a brief, devastating flash forward – one of those “years later” epilogues like in Jean Renoir’s Une Partie de Campagne. It’s not immediately clear what has occasioned this family get-together – it’s not a birthday, or a new year’s celebration, and this is not the kind of family that just spontaneously decides to hang out for a weekend. Gradually, through Kore-eda’s extremely sensitive writing and direction of actors, that reason becomes clear, and with it comes a whole new understanding of how these people relate to each other, in terms of the resentment and the competing hierarchies and the inexpressible love that are common to all families.

An Ozu-esque story told in Ozu-esque fashion, then; but Kore-eda takes seriously what it means to make this kind of film today, in an extremely different Japan and an extremely different cinematic landscape from Ozu’s time. For every aspect of his film that plays like a specific, even parodic reference to a moment in Ozu – as in the scene where the family stands in an ordered group to have their photo taken, recalling the ending of Early Summer, only here instead of hiring a professional photographer for the occasion they can simply get one of the kids to use his digital camera – there is an addition, an introduction of something totally outside Ozu’s world that helps us to make sense of this 21st-century family. The most important and brilliant of these is the character of Ryota’s stepson Atsushi, whose widowed mother has now married into the family, and through whose foreign eyes we see much of what goes on amongst these people. While Ozu always had a fondness for these awkwardly poised outsider-insider characters (Setsuko Hara’s Noriko in Tokyo Story being the most famous example), a child like Atsushi, born of a world where remarriage and the restless movement of young families from city to city are rapidly losing their taboo quality, would be an impossibility in the universe of the old master. Perhaps because of this, Kore-eda places a great deal of emotional and narrative weight upon this boy and the young actor (Shohei Tanaka) who plays him, and it pays off beautifully. Atsushi offers not just an outsider’s look into the life of this family, but a vision of a life beyond such patriarchal groupings, beyond Ozu’s family, and the possibility that this is not something purely to be mourned, but also, more humbly, to be recognized as a continuation of the never-ceasing processes of social change. In this sense Atsushi plays something of a similar role to the kids in Olivier Assayas’ recent Summer Hours, and indeed there is a whole range of French influence upon Kore-eda’s achievement here, from Renoir to Eric Rohmer to Assayas, to go along with and further enrich the Ozu hommage. Still Walking is a wonder, a revelation, a joy to behold – maybe even a Tokyo Story for our time.

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