In the aftermath of his own mother's death, director Hirokazu Kore-eda crafted his most personal film to date, a quiet meditation on family dynamics. There's virtually no plot, just an examination of the simple nuances and evolving relationships at play in the structure of an average Japanese family. Instead of grand statements, the film speaks volumes through seemingly minor and wordless occurrences such as cooking rituals, walks in the neighborhood, or children attempting to reach lofty tree blossoms. These carefully selected touches give the film an incredibly strong sense of realism and clearly acted as a form of catharsis for the director as he worked through his own feelings surrounding the loss of his mother.
The family gathers at the modest longtime home of an elderly couple in a quiet seaside town. Kore-eda offers no exposition about why the family members are convening, only gradually revealing bits and pieces of back story entirely through their interactions with each other. Although we know nothing at the start, Kore-eda does such a masterful job of conveying the interpersonal dynamics of these characters through the course of the film that I felt like a member of the family by its end. It's soon revealed that the family has gathered for the annual memorial of the couple's deceased son, a promising young man who died 15 years ago while saving a local loser from drowning in the sea. The couple's two surviving adult children and their families seemingly participate more out of familial obligation than any marked sense of loss, but that catalyst for their forced brief cohabitation drives everyone into familiar patterns as they attempt to make sense of their continued relationships with each other.
Although it admittedly sounds like a boring idea for a feature length film, and there's certainly no complex plot awaiting reveal, there is some magic at play here that slowly but surely takes hold. All of the performers give understated and composed performances, eschewing any theatrics in service to the familiar routines and familial roles of their characters. I was somewhat reminded of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman with it similar singular focus on the relationships of a modern but heavily traditional Asian family, and like that film Still Walking gets some mileage out of its cantankerous elders openly dismissive of the directions their children's lives have taken. However, Kore-eda's film is much more concerned with simply portraying a mostly functional family as it works through continued grief and the insurmountable divide that has developed through the years between parents and children. And still, the family carries on, as all families inevitably do, with all members fulfilling their obligation to the memory of their departed kin as they go through the familiar motions of preparing meals, visiting the gravesite, and just interacting with each other. Those interactions reveal everything we need to know about the family, and Kore-eda's adept touch at framing them in such an instantly believable and fully-realized home environment allows viewers to draw some parallels to and contemplation of their own family lives, making the finished product pack an emotional punch that extends far beyond the actions occurring in the film.
The film is only a few years old and as such did not require any real restorative work, but as par for the course with Criterion a new digital transfer was created from the source negative for this release. The Blu-ray high-definition image quality is worth the premium, particularly for the optimal presentation of the serene and gorgeous shots around the setting of the quiet coastal town. The extras include a half-hour documentary about the making of the film, along with a candid half-hour interview with Kore-eda and a separate brief interview with his director of photography, Yutaka Yamazaki. Kore-eda's interview is especially revelatory as he talks about his background and objective in making the film and how moving an experience it was for him in dealing with his own loss.
Still Walking is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. For more information, visit Criterion's website.