Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking (2008) has just been issued as part of The Criterion Collection, and is a magnificent piece of work. Kore-eda not only directed the film, but wrote and edited it as well. What he delivered is a beautiful, and often bittersweet study of family - one which rings true no matter what your nationality is.
Except for a brief coda which fast-forwards about ten years, Still Walking takes place over the course of a one-day family reunion. The event is held on a hot summer day, commemorating the death of eldest son Junpei Yokoyama twelve years earlier. Junpei rescued a boy from drowning at the local beach, and lost his own life in the process.
Junpei was the eldest son, and much of the story is told through the eyes of younger brother Ryoto (Hiroshi Abe), now in his early 30s. Retired doctor Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada) and his wife Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) will never get past their excruciating pain, but valiantly keep the memory of their beloved son alive with the yearly commemoration.
Ryoto will never live up to the near-sainthood Junpei has been accorded with his early death. Younger sister Chinami (played by former Japanese pop star You) is present as well. The stage is now set for three generations of a family still coping with a heartbreaking loss, and all of the inherent dynamics this yearly gathering evokes.
The various interactions between the family members are so perfectly drawn, I often saw many aspects of my own extended family being played out. But besides the powerful storytelling, the look of the film is gorgeous. Cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki frames nearly every shot with a telling focus on specific details. There are the hilltop shots from where Junpei is buried, which look down upon the beach, and bay - just as a red passenger train travels through, all the way across the frame.
Another outstanding use of the camera is with the kitchen scenes. The communal cooking and eating ritual that goes along with every large family gathering is captured so well, you honestly can just about smell the food. The food in fact is a major part of the story, as is reflected in the accompanying booklet. Kore-eda has actually included four of his mother's recipes, which appear in the film, and has converted the ingredients to US measurements for his audience to try for themselves.
The other item of note in the book is a marvelous essay titled "A Death In The Family," by Dennis Lim, a contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Lim's thoughts on Still Walking provide a nice context to the film.
As for bonus features on the DVD, there are three of note. Both Kore-eda and Yamazaki are interviewed. Kore-eda's is pretty in-depth at 25 minutes, while Yamazaki also has some nice insights, his runs 13 minutes.
For me, the half-hour documentary "Making Still Walking" is the most interesting though. This is one of those rare documentaries that really capture what the experience of making the picture was all about. Evidently Kore-eda tends to disappear often while working, so much so that it became a running joke. There are also those moments where he shows his mastery of the type of film he makes so well. Specifically, although Still Walking itself is presented as something of a documentary, there are times when the visual artist just comes shining through, and he will stop whatever is going on to get a one-of-a kind cloud image.
There is much to recommend about Still Walking. In fact, some have called it a modern international masterpiece. I suggest seeing it, and deciding for yourself. Personally, I cannot argue with that description however. Everything about this feature is powerful, and worthy of seeing.
Still Walking is in Japanese (with subtitles) and runs 114 minutes (not including the extras).