STILL WALKING (ARUITEMO ARUITEMO) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
In STILL WALKING the Yokoyama home is bustling with activity and chatter as three generations gather for an annual remembrance of Junpei, the eldest son and brother who died years earlier while saving a child from drowning. The prickly head of the household is Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), a retired physician bitter for, among other reasons, being forced to quit practicing. He is as quiet and distant as his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is talkative and attentive.
The memorial visit is particularly uncomfortable for the oldest living son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe). Unlike Junpei, Ryota did not follow in his father's professional footsteps. Rather than being a doctor, he decided on a career restoring art. All these years later Kyohei still begrudges Ryota's choice as though it was intended as a personal affront. With Ryota's return home coinciding with employment problems, something he wants kept secret from his parents, he is already feeling sufficiently inferior.
Joining Ryota on the visit is his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and stepson Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka). Ordinarily this might be an occasion for his parents to express pleasure with their late marrying son, but they think he has taken on damaged goods in the form of a widow and her child. Also fluttering about the house are Ryota's sister Chinami (You), her husband, and their two kids. Chinami is using this time to try and nail down a commitment for her family to move into her parents' home.
STILL WALKING writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda began as a television documentary filmmaker before transitioning to narrative fiction films. His keen observational sense is put to exceptional use in this lovely and heartbreaking portrait of family and all of its complications. STILL WALKING primarily consists of conversations and scrutiny of interpersonal dynamics. While it may appear that Kore-eda is merely depicting everyday life, his studied method probes beneath the surface of congenial interactions to reveal years of tangled emotions and judgments this loving but bruised family holds against one another.
As is probably true for many families, passive-aggressiveness dominates the Yokoyamas' communication style. Toshiko puts on a warm and cheerful exterior, yet she harbors the greatest and longest held resentments of anyone in the house. Kiki is marvelous in how she can use a smile and an innocuous statement to make the most cutting remarks. By all appearances Toshiko is happily entering her golden years, but gradually she is shown to be a deeply angry and wounded person. Toshiko doesn't have nor require a big outburst to voice her displeasure. Whether it's by word or deed, such as not laying out new pajamas for Atsushi, she subtly lets her new daughter-in-law know where she stands. Politely accepting the arrows slung her way, Natsukawa's sensitive performance as Yukari brings an outsider's fresh perspective on hurtful behaviors and attitudes that her new family takes for granted.
While STILL WALKING'S characters can seem unnecessarily mean while staying civil in how they treat each other, Kore-eda adopts a highly empathetic outlook on the Yokoyamas. He acknowledges the complexity within each person and how difficult it can be for the pieces of a family to fit, especially as each changes over a lifetime. The only experience we can ever truly know to the full extent is our own, and Kore-eda sees that each character is doing the best with what is available to them, even if their understanding of family members frequently comes up short.
Toshiko comes across as cruel at a few specific moments, but Kore-eda doesn't think of her as a terrible individual. He sees that she lashes out because she's in pain. The film doesn't excuse Toshiko's callousness but recognizes where it comes from. That Kore-eda generates this profound comprehension and compassion for multiple characters is the mark of a major talent.
Longstanding family concerns and hang-ups aren't resolved overnight, and STILL WALKING doesn't bother attempting to repair them. Rather, Kore-eda captures a lot of truth in the details of communication, shared history, and the passing down of knowledge. He finds it in a mother's slight nudge of a child on the verge of inappropriate laughing. It's there as a parent tells a kid not to act poor when combining multiple soft drinks from a self-serve soda fountain. It's there too as a family argues over who really did something in a highly retold story in which the facts and reality may not agree. STILL WALKING is so uncommonly and beautifully perceptive about how families interact that it feels as natural as putting one foot in front of the next.