"Still Walking" works in mysterious ways. It will strongly move you, but you won't be able to say exactly why. It illuminates 24 hours in the life of a Japanese family, and though it may appear that not much is happening, by the end everything is revealed.
For those who remember his masterful "After Life," it's not surprising that "Still Walking" is the work of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda. He's a young filmmaker whose work gently echoes that of Yasujiro Ozu, his country's great master of everyday life, but Kore-eda is also very much his own person in his ability to present the push and pull of seemingly ordinary events, the quiet moments that end up defining our lives.
Though its window into the Yokoyama family is a limited one, we get a sense of the dreams, desires and limitations of each member as well as a firm conviction that as time moves on, it is family that finally endures. Kore-eda's delicate, elegiac film accomplishes all of this because he has an uncanny grasp of how relationships within these kinds of groupings work and don't work, a feeling for the small ways we disappoint not only each other but also ourselves.
Though their lives seem unremarkable on the surface, a tragedy of major proportions haunts this family. A dozen years earlier, Junpei, a doctor and the all-around golden boy eldest son, died saving a drowning boy. Now the two remaining siblings and their families have returned to the parents' home in Yokohama to mark the anniversary of that death.
Introduced first in food preparation mode are mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) and married daughter Chinami (Japanese pop star You). Their conversation seems unremarkable as they peel carrots and cope with a giant radish, but there is a glint of disappointment when the mother attempts to pass on a recipe and the daughter says she'll never use it: Her car salesman husband, Nobuo (Kazuya Takahashi), eats nothing but fast food.
Oblivious to this domestic side of things is stern family patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada). He's cold, judgmental and so proud of his status as a doctor (albeit retired) who ran his own clinic that he refuses to be seen carrying a grocery shopping bag. Kyohei is still so furious at the needless death of his son and presumptive heir that he fails to see the pain he causes his other family members, especially his son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe).
It is that son who, not surprisingly, is still affected most by his brother's death, to the point where he cannot refer to himself as the eldest son, though that's what he's been for more than a decade. An art restorer who lives in Tokyo with his new wife, herself a widow with a 10-year-old son, Ryota has kept his distance from the family, nursing old slights and, recently out of a job, allowing buried tensions to simmer.
It is Ryota's wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), who is the only voice of calm and reason in this troubled group. She has been the force behind her husband's visit, and it is at her insistence that they are not only going to show up for the memorial but also stay overnight.
Kore-eda, who was inspired to make this film by the death of his parents, says in a director's statement that he's "focused on the premonitions and the reverberations of life. Because I believe that is precisely where the essence of life can be found," and found it he has.
What "Still Walking" excels at is providing a sense of how life is lived for these people, how they try, as we all do, to cope with the cards life has dealt us. This small gem of a movie always feels true and real as it gently reveals the quiet moments that define our lives.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: At the Nuart in West L.A.