Thursday, December 26, 2019
Hirokazu Kore-eda | 歩いても 歩いても (Aruitemo aruitemo) (Still Walking)
moving ahead in order to celebrate a broken past
by Douglas Messerli
Hirokazu Kore-eda (writer and director) 歩いても 歩いても (Aruitemo aruitemo) (Still Walking) / 2008
Over the years of watching films by the great Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda I have come to rely on his art for visions of slightly disoriented yet loving families, and in that sense, as Roger Ebert has commented, this director is the direct heir of Yasujirō Ozu—except, perhaps, Kore-eda has updated his family stories and turned what was nearly always horizontal into basically vertical worlds.
This is particularly so in his 2008 masterwork, Still Walking, whose title alone suggests an endless forward push, or, at least, a repetition of movement through space.
Yet, as in Ozu, Still Walking, is fascinated with tradition. The father of this rather large brood, Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada) is seen quite often simply sitting, as are Ozu’s figures, and pontificating his viewpoints from tatami mats and office chairs. If he has once been a caring and loving local doctor, while perhaps ignoring his family—he was away at the time of his elder son’s death and he has evidently had extramarital affairs in the past—he has now turned into something of a curmudgeon, highly opinionated and hardly speaking to his hard-working wife, Toshiko (the excellent actor Kirin Kiki), who is the true force behind the Yokoyama family, and who, in many respects, is as hard-fast in her beliefs as is her husband. Just like her husband, moreover, she loves music—he classical and jazz, she pop tunes.
The family has gathered, as it has annually for 15 years, to commemorate the death of their heroic first-born son, Junpei, who drowned while saving another boy’s life.
Her second-born son, Ryota (the handsome Hiroshi Abe) and the Yokoyama daughter, Chinami (You) have obviously had to suffer this annual ritual without being so highly appreciated, and memorialized, as their elder brother, for whom Toshiko cooks and orders up enough eel, sushi, and other dishes to feed an army, while Chinami’s children rush around wildly, and Ryota’s adopted son, born of the widower he has recently married after his own divorce, is somewhat more of an introvert, wanting to grow up to be a piano tuner (like his father) or, after a conversation with Ryota’s father, perhaps a doctor—much to his father’s chagrin.
Moreover, it’s also clear that the two younger siblings have not necessarily had very successful careers. Ryota, an art restorer, is between jobs and spends much of the film on the telephone attempting to find employment without telling his parents about his predicament. Chinami attempts to convince her mother to allow her noisy family to move into the rather large parental home yet makes little progress with the recalcitrant older woman. “Who could bear all of that noise?” she ponders.
As for Ryota’s son, she treats him less like family than as a kind of uninvited guest, purchasing new pajamas for her son, while providing nothing for the child, with whom she demands his father bathe within their crowded bathtub. There is a slight sexual embarrassment in the event; he is not the son’s father, and bathing with a young alert boy is annoying—and perhaps a little dangerous.
Yet for all the tensions and uncomfortable situations all experience, we sense the love between them. They walk to Junpei’s grave to place flowers and wash down the headstone, evidently a Japanese custom, during the overwarm day. They take Ryota’s son to the beach, while warning him, understandably, not to enter the water. Surely, it was here that Junpei drowned.
They even annually invite the boy Junpei saved, now an overweight underachiever, to a tea and drink ceremony, which is so uncomfortable, the now older man almost begging for their forgiveness, that Ryota suggests they should not do it again; to which his mother admits the invitations are only to punish him.
Mostly they cook, Chinami and her mother spending hours in the kitchen, talking and slightly arguing, but working up a feast to celebrate the long-ago event. We slowly come to realize that Junpei is no longer the center of this celebration, even if together they pretend and even insist it is the reason they have come home. Rather it is a begrudging love they feel for one another, despite all they personal failures and inability to fully express their love. Even the somewhat bitter Kyohei, the gruff former doctor, forges a relationship with his now adopted grandson, whose fascination with the piano that lies at the foot of Junpei’s home memorial, attracts the child to play its keys, which suggests he truly might become a piano-tuner, or even maybe a pianist someday. Skepticism, patience, and love play equal parts in this lovely work.
They relationships are based in familial love, the lessons they have learned by living so many years together, and, at one point, when a yellow butterfly enters the room to settle on Junpei’s memorial, on superstition—a crazy mix that is at the heart of most family relationships.
Strangely, I watched this movie on Christmas day, remembering through its difficult expressions of family love just how many of those who return for family gatherings equally hate and enjoy those events. And by the end of this film, we realize, as we all must, just how short-lived those sometimes-terrifying reunions truly are.
In a voice-over near the film’s end Ryota reveals that just a few years later his father died, his angry mother dying soon after. I recall in one of Anthony Powell’s great fictions, part of his 12-volume series of A Dance to the Music of Time, how a couple who openly daily argued among friends, died only a few days apart, the male, in this case, absolutely unable to bear the loss of his much-belittled wife. Could Edward Albee’s Martha and George ever live apart?
Families argue, families hate, families love and can never retrieve those emotions or must live with them the rest of their lives. In the last scene, we see that with the beautiful widow whom Ryota has married he has begun a new family, a young daughter to join his deeply curious son, who is perhaps, in the end, the center of this film, a representation of the next generation pondering all the never-ending confusions of the previous generation and vowing, surely unsuccessfully, to never repeat them.
Kore-eda manages in his films to reveal the failures of family life, while still forgiving them all.
Los Angeles, December 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).