Fresh from acclaim on the international circuit, Koreeda Hirokazu’s Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo) comes to the LA Film Festival. It takes place over one hot summer’s day as a family reunion of three generations leisurely unfolds through eating, chatting and taking a stroll. Much food is prepared, nothing very striking actually takes place, and none of the characters is especially out of the ordinary. This is well-worn territory, both in Japan and abroad, but what distinguishes this film is the skillful and natural way in which relationships, resentments and regrets are revealed, gradually and gently.
The life of the household is grandmother Toshiko, cheerful and bustling; her husband Kyouhei is unfriendly and brusque, preferring to spend much of the day sitting in his consulting room. But it is soon apparent that his rude behaviour stems primarily from shyness and malingering disappointment at having had to retire from the doctoring job that was his whole life. He also has an extremely uneasy relationship with his second eldest son Ryota; the reason they are all present on this day is to commemorative the anniversary of the death of eldest son and heir Junpei, and time has increased the influence of his memory, of which the parents have made no attempt to let go, into an impossible yardstick to which Ryota feels he should not be demanded to measure up.
He in turn is struggling in his relationship with his adoptive son Atsushi – his new wife Yukari is a widow – but knows hardly where to begin; he does not demand respect in these relationships but at the same time struggles to deserve it, even at 40 retaining some of the selfishness of childhood, a propensity to avoid responsibility and a constant need to check his cell phone. Yukari meanwhile, behind a display of impeccable manners, perceives endless slights from her mother-in-law even beyond those belittlements unwittingly bestowed.
The grandparents disapprove of both their surviving off-spring’s marriages; the buffoonish husband of daughter Chinami and their noisy children are the main reasons the grandparents don’t want them to move back home; behind a sweet round exterior, Toshiko is revealed to have a store of hard-hearted feelings, even cruelty, stemming only in part from deep despair at the loss of her child. It is this same despair that seems also to bind the elderly couple together, not exactly in mutual loathing, but certainly with unfriendliness, abetted as much by Toshiko’s gentle but constant contradiction of everyone around her as by Kyouhei’s irritability.
As is often the case with this sort of picture, inspiration was drawn in part from Koreeda’s own family memories, and the veracity of the characters and relationships is impeccable, from the fundamental ties of family that produce unspoken understanding, to the fixed relationships and quirks that frustrate at every meeting. A tentative step forward is made in both father/son relationships by the following day, and a sweet ending perfectly illustrates the silly little things that can bond a son and his mother. And there the film indeed should have ended: a suddenly intrusive voice-over destroys the mood and a brief coda skips us forward several years to provide information we didn’t really require. But this is not enough to ruin what has preceded it, a well-judged and unsentimental family portrait of quiet beauty.
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image: LA film festival