Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s home drama Still Walking is a master class in doing much with little. The movie’s style and plot are simplicity itself. A Japanese family, including unemployed art restorer Hiroshi Abe, his father (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor, his mother (Kirin Kiki) and his sister (You) gather to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eldest son’s drowning death. The action transpires throughout a single day, much of it filmed in unblinking master shots that take in the intergenerational conflicts—some expressed and some omnipresent but unspoken—without intruding upon them. Kore-Eda saves his rare close-ups for incidental details, like the toothbrushes laid out for Abe and his family’s overnight stay, or the sizzle of corn fritters slipping into hot oil.
Those seemingly throwaway inserts—drawn, as it turns out, directly from Kore-Eda’s memories of his own family reunions—are the key to the movie’s heart. The substance of the family’s conversations is riddled with regrets: a child’s life cut short, a father’s legacy left unfulfilled, his children caught between their own unfulfilled dreams and their parents’ unfulfilled expectations. But their actions are embedded with a shared history no disappointment can undo. For good and for ill, they’ve left their imprint on one another.
Although the movie’s style and setting inevitably prompt comparison to Ozu’s home dramas, Kore-Eda doesn’t share his predecessor’s mournful disdain for the younger generation, or his sentimental veneration of the old. He sees each character’s flaws and virtues with equal clarity, letting them unfold with a measured grace that equals Jean Renoir’s. Kiki, much of whose dialogue is drawn from Kore-Eda’s mother, initially seems like the epitome of the patient, sorrowful housewife, but a visit by the young man her son died rescuing opens a window into a deep well of bitterness and spite. Harada’s stern, gruff patriarch is the closest thing to a villain, retreating to his examining room when family arrives and emerging only to issue harsh, unsparing judgments of his offspring. But even he earns a measure of understanding, if only from a distance.
Built around a handful of long-take scenes at the family dinner table, Still Walking transpires with unhurried ease, but multiple viewings reveal the sophistication of its almost imperceptible style. The movie seems like a perfect found object, as if it had always existed and was just waiting to be uncovered.