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Film Review: Still Walking

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film Still Walking is getting the kind of appreciative murmers reserved for Ozu-in fact, Ozu is the spirit guide through this gendai-geki home drama in the Ozu fashion of generational divide, regret and disappointment.

    Early in the film we view a vista that takes in the sea and the train tracks running beside it…and sure enough, we see the first of several trains pass as the film progresses-pillow shots sraight out of Ozu! Once the sentimental music kicks in, we cannot help but recall the master.

    Although the tatami-mat view is not a prominent feature, and, in fact, the cinematography is not particularly memorable, other Ozu-like elements of the visual include the indoor shot with garden vista framed by shoji screens-the shots displaying the detritus of a family’s life-the doctor’s former office, the brickabrack of an unused room.

    The family has lost a son who saved another boy. On the anniversary of the son’s death, the family gathers. The sister, with her strange, high-pitched voice peels daikon at her mother’s side in the family home as her mother iterates the many ways of preparing radish. The dad, looking like a Japanese Colonel Sanders with his Kentucky Fried moustache and hair is introduced-he is patently gruff with all. Those at home broaden out to include the husband of the daughter and her two kids.

    At a scene shift inside a commuter train we are introduced to the family’s younger brother-the one who survived. Now about 40, he has just married a widow and his household includes her son. Between jobs, he dreads the visit to his family home.

    Nostalgia, regret, longing for the dead, disappointment, smoldering resentment, shame, and a past transgression play their roles. The family dines on the fresh spattering tempura prpared by the mother. The younger daughter tries to wheedle an invitation out of the mother for her family to move in. At one point she talks about pulling down a wall between the living spaces and the old doctor’s office. The mother looks impassive, and the daughter and her brood depart, leaving the “leftover” disappointment-the son who survives but did not follow in his father’s footsteps, his new wife, and her son-who is mourning privately, his own loss.

    At one point the young boy stands in the moonlight and speaks aloud his wish to be like his father, to follow in his footsteps and be a piano tuner …”and if that’s not possible…a doctor”. He had had an earlier bonding moment with his new grandpa, and thought that doctor might not be a bad “backup” career.

    Through the one afternoon, evening and morning, we learn of the family’s disappointment…the parents have lost their “best” son, and this is their day of rememberance. The boy their son saved from drowning comes to pay his respects-as he had been doing some 15 years. The saved boy is a fat mess who confesses as he leaves, “I’ll never amount to anything”.

    Later, the leftover son talks to his mother, “Be kind, don’t ask him back next year”. But the mother is steely…she enjoys making the fat boy suffer. The fifteen years of remembering the sacrifice of her son are not yet enough, and she enjoys making the boy feel pain.

    As she enjoys playing an old record that she had heard sung from her husband’s lips many years ago from some woman’s room. An old family secret brought out to cause pain.

    It is not that the mother is a bad woman-though she can be cruel. She talks, while arranging a kimono present ot the new wife, “You should have children soon.” But then, considers the son of the deceased husband and says, “But think about the boy-better not” as she turns her back to find a sash in thedrawer. Giving hope and dashing it in two sentences. It’s a very cruel scene.

    The leftover son, his wife and her son, and the mother all climb the long way to the cemetary where mother pours ladlefuls of water on the grave stone. “This must feel good on a hot day”. As they descend, a yellow butterfly comes into view along with a folkism. This becomes a central plot point that circles memory, longing, hope and fear, and continuity in its fragile orbit. To tell more would be to spoil the film.

    In conclusion, Yoshio Harada is clearly too fine an actor for his brief role as the father (just meaning here that I sensed that I could happily watch him much more than this role required of him) the leftover son Hiroshi Abe is quite good in his role, with a nuanced emotional profile, Kirin Kiki as the mom is brilliant, with a great presence and fascinating face!

    Although Ozu is clearly the undisputed master, Still Walking shows Kore-eda as a true heir.

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    Vili Maunula

    Hey, it was just two days ago that I was trying to find out where I could see this film! I’ve been interested in Koreeda ever since I saw After Life in an intimate screening with the director, who answered the audience’s questions afterwards — we were only about 15 people in the room, so quite intimate indeed! I really like his style, warmth and pace.

    So, thanks for the review, Coco! I must confess that I didn’t read every word, as I wanted to skip any possible plot spoilers (I’m usually not so concerned about knowing the story beforehand, but this one’s a special case), but I’ll certainly read this in more detail once I manage to see the film myself.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Mmm. Good idea, Vili. Better safe than sorry (I tried to be careful, but who knows what would spoil another’s experience of a film?)

    I saw this film on the prompt of Russ Colins-a favorite film critic and a director of the Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_Theater_(Ann_Arbor) The really funny thing was that this is one of the last theatres in the U.S. to have a fully-functional and restored pipe organ. Waiting for the film to begin, (I was early) I was the sole audience for the organist seated at the console, as both rose from the floor and began playing “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”.

    Imagine this huge thing bellowing out from the walls, and filling the elaborate stucco and gilded space. So awesome, I was rocking out, since I was alone!

    Then, as he concluded and the organ and organist sunk back down into the shadows at the stage’s foot, four Japanese people came in and sat behind me. So, this fabulous film was seen by only five souls…and in the most splendiferous setting. Really too bad.

    Luckily, not characteristic. The Michigan is beloved, and was chosen as one of eight in the country to host 8 new Sundance films as part of “Sundance USA” http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/sundance-film-festival-ann-arbor-tickets/

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    Vili Maunula

    Wow, that’s an old film theatre, and an old organ. Must have been quite a feeling to sit there in the dark, listening to a private Tchaikovsky concert!

    I don’t actually even remember when I last went to the cinema. It may well have been last March for Watchmen. That’s probably another good sign that I should slow down with work. But there also hasn’t been much to see that would have played at times convenient for me. So, I have instead been exploring older films.

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    cocoskyavitch

    It is strange to hear a European exclaim that anything American is old! But, yep, I guess your home country is, technically, only dating from 1917! (Although, certainly cultural and linguistic roots much older!)

    Still Walking was the only film I have seen in theatre in 2009. Very busy, as well!

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    Vili Maunula

    It took me a while until I realised that you were referring to Finland with that 1917. 🙂 Yes, it’s a relatively young country with a young identity. I don’t consider it a “home” though, although I was certainly born and raised there.

    Anyway, I primarily meant “old” in terms of cinema. I rarely see cinemas older than a couple of decades, unless they have been completely revamped. I don’t know how it is in the US, but in Europe having the words “old” and “cinema” in the same sentence isn’t usually consider a good thing. The trend here, and I understand also in the US, is very much towards ever bigger and more impersonal multiplexes, even for art theatres. That’s why the notion of an 80-year-old cinema sounds so romantic to me. Chaplin’s The Circus may well have had its premiere there. Maybe even with that organ playing the music. That’s quite something!

    Directly from the exact other end of the film spectrum, I now remember that I also went to see Angels & Demons this year, so that’s probably the last one I saw in the cinemas. Oh well, maybe I’ll round up my year of high-quality art films by watching Avatar in 3D…

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    cocoskyavitch

    No, I totally get it-but it surprised me that we have anything that a European would consider “old”. I am accustomed to students exclaiming when they hear a date relevant to a monument/building, sculpture, painting, etc. in Europe that it is “wow, so old”!

    My friend, Henry Aldridge, is a prof. of cinema in CTAT here, and we have done a study abroad program a couple of times in Italy on Italian Film. He was “instrumental” in the historic preservation of the organ (pun intended) and did a big research project on the history of the theatre and its relationship to Ann Arbor. He could probably give a full rundown of premieres at the Michigan.

    But, what I am beginning to be really interested in is in getting screening tickets for the Short Films from the Sundance Film Festival 2009 that is screening tomorrow night at the Michigan! (Ever see the Simpson’s when Lisa did a documentary short film at Sundance?” Hilarious!) And, failing that, may just go see their free screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (preceeded by Christmas music on the organ) on Sunday.

    BTW, Vili, don’t ever mention anything to do with Dan Brown to me ever again! He is the bane of my existence as an art historian, just as Bob Ross must be to all painters. (Exaggeration for humorous effect…totally not really offended. Did you actually like Angels and Demons? Truly the dumbest book I’ve ever read…!)

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    Vili Maunula

    I can understand how Dan Brown must have made it difficult for you. We were in Rome a few weeks ago, and to my better half’s great annoyance, I kept pointing at things and excitedly remarking, “ohmygod, Tom Hanks was there!”

    I have never read any of Brown’s books and I’m snobby enough to say that I also intend to keep it that way, but I did find Angels & Demons entertaining as a film. Tom Hanks was good, Ewan McGregor too (although this time around he kept his clothes on to my better half’s great disappointment), and all in all I thought that it was a well made brainless action-adventure thriller. They should make more of those.

    I must also confess that I have to the best of my knowledge seen every single episode of the Simpsons ever made. I remember the Sundance episode, too. 🙂 Nelson’s documentary in that episode is also excellent, I recall. Not a very old episode, is it?

    Yours,

    Vili, a victim of pop culture

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    Vili Maunula

    Today, I finally had the chance to watch Still Walking. Having finally seen it, it was great to be able to read your reflections here Coco, as well as Ugetsu’s from another thread.

    I wouldn’t necessarily call Still Walking a great film (like Ugetsu does), but I am happy to have seen it. I got the feeling that Koreeda wasn’t quite brave enough to develop the story as far as he should have, and as a result it remained in my opinion a little unfinished and uneven, in a sense disappointingly superficial.

    The acting, I felt, was also a little uneven. Hiroshi Abe, who I really got to like in The Last Princess (that remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress) was again excellent as the son. You as her sister was also really good, although hers was perhaps a little bit too bubbly a performance for the rest of the film. I have seen her previously at least in Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, and quite like her. Yui Natsukawa’s portrayal of the wife was also very good, as was Kirin Kiki’s role as the grandmother.

    However, I found Yoshio Harada’s portrayal of the grandfather quite poor. I’m a bit surprised that Coco seems to have liked him here — for me, Harada was constantly off with his performance, and quite inconsistent from one scene to another. This was a major annoyance considering the importance of the character. Harada just didn’t command the force and presence that I felt the grandfather character would have needed. It may of course have been a directorial choice to tone down the character, but either way I felt that this didn’t work like it should have worked. Not that the role was easy.

    I also think that the ending could have been done differently. While forcing a full resolution would have been pretentious, I think that something could have been developed, especially in terms of the grandfather-grandson (even if not biological grandson) relationship, as now the story of the film felt a bit too aimless (even if I’m sure aimlessness was an intentional choice). Personally, I would have liked to see the grandson’s missing of his biological father contrasted with his stepfather’s difficulties communicating with his own father, and the relationship between the two explored through that contrast.

    I did like the cinematography, however. Unlike Coco, I found many of the framing choices quite interesting, but then again I have really grown to like Koreeda’s style from his earlier films that I have seen.

    All in all, I was happy to see it, although perhaps also a little disappointed with the end result. But perhaps that was only to be expected, considering that I had been looking forward to the film for so long, both because of my interest towards Koreeda and because of all the glowing reviews.

    I will rate the film with 4.8 organic bananas from a scale of 3.21 used blankets.

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    Ugetsu

    Sorry you didn’t like the film so much Vili – for once I think you are in a minority! But you make some very interesting points. I think you are right that the Grandfather character in Still Walking was a little inconsistent at times, although I put it down to a characterization of someone suffering from undiagnosed depression.

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