Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of a kind. Most Japanese directors of his generation (he was born in 1962) started out making Super-8 movies with friends in high school or college and hoping to win recognition at the annual festival of independent films organized by the Tokyo listings magazine Pia. There were no real film schools in Japan at the time, so self-training was the only way forward. Kore-eda wrote scripts for films as a kid, but didn’t shoot them. And when he graduated (he read Literature at Waseda University in Tokyo), he opted for a job with a large independent company producing documentaries for television.

Still Walking

He was soon directing documentaries himself; his subjects included the first man in Japan to come out as HIV-positive as a result of sexual contacts, a man who hid his Korean origins from his family for 50 years, and a woman whose husband killed himself when his work forced him to compromise his ideals. (He also made one about his idols, the Taiwanese filmmakers Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien.) Meanwhile his ambition to make features was put on hold. “The experience of making documentaries,” he once told me, “made me realize how inauthentic my scripts were, and how much I still had to learn about human nature.”

It’s obviously unusual—and may seem perverse—to begin a review with a thumbnail sketch of the director’s formation. But in Kore-eda’s case, it’s a real help in grasping how he came to make a film as fully achieved as Still Walking. Kore-eda’s career trajectory has been a journey from extreme reticence to warm engagement. Virtually all of his documentaries focus on individuals in emotional difficulties, and making them hinged on building a degree of intimacy and trust between filmmaker and subject. But Kore-eda rigorously excluded himself from the films, framing all of them in the third person. This willful detachment blossomed into full-scale control-freakery when he began making features in 1995. For his ultra-studied debut, Maborosi, he not only employed the best translator he could find to do the subtitles but also hired her to tag along during all his visits to festivals to translate his interviews—a rare phenomenon with established vets, unheard of with a youngish first-timer. He was well aware of his own distrust of involvement: it’s no accident that his third feature, in which he tried to deal with the problem of murderous extremist cults in Japan, was titled Distance (01).

Kore-eda’s struggle has been to loosen up enough to invest his films with his own emotional convictions. He spoke on a panel that I chaired at the Tokyo FilmEx festival a couple of years back, and admitted rather frankly that he was trying to get past his “detached” mode and make more audience-friendly films. Nobody Knows (04), his film about abandoned kids, had marked a step in that direction, and Hana (06), an anti-bushido drama set in the margins of the 47 ronin story, went noticeably further. The triumph of Still Walking is that it illuminates one family’s history and emotional dynamics in the simplest possible way, and does so from the inside looking out. There’s no calculated “‘objectivity.” Kore-eda has finally found the way to stop keeping his characters at arm’s length.

Still Walking Kore-eda

Aside from a brief coda, Still Walking limits itself to one day and night, most of it spent inside one house in a small seaside town. The Yokoyama family convenes at this time every year to mark the anniversary of the death of the elder son, Junpei, who drowned in the sea 15 years earlier while rescuing another boy. There are two surviving children: the daughter, Chinami, married to a car salesman and with two kids, and the younger son, Ryota, a picture restorer currently out of work, recently married to a young widow and trying hard to be a father to her son. Both parents are still alive. The patriarch, Kyohei, ran a small medical practice from the house’s annex until he retired; he remains embittered about the death of his favorite son and intended heir, and is almost incapable of warmth toward anyone else in the family. His wife Toshiko also mourns her long-dead son and is given to making apparently thoughtless wounding remarks, but reserves her best passive aggression for her husband. There’s a natural flow of small hatreds, resentments, joys, and insecurities, superbly caught by every member of the cast.

Let’s be clear what the film isn’t. It’s not a “home drama” in the Ozu style: the structure and shots aren’t formalized in that way, it describes an altogether messier situation than you’d find in an Ozu film (many shots feature all three generations, each going its own way and following its own rhythm), and it uses its snatches of everyday business to imply the history of every relationship—which is something Ozu never needed to do. Nor is it anything like a Mike Leigh film: there’s no caricature or melodrama, and the arrangement of the material is cleverly nuanced. And, unlike any domestic soap you can think of, it doesn’t point morals. Towards the end, Ryota reflects that he’s always a little behind the curve, but that’s as near as the film gets to “personal growth”; nobody achieves new self-awareness and no relationship changes. By the end, though, the internal dynamics of the family are as clear in your mind as if a psychologist had drawn a diagram.

The title is borrowed from a sentimental old pop song (it turns out to have a startling special significance for Toshiko, the matriarch), and its romantic, yearning lyrics provide a neat counterpoint to the film’s life-goes-on ethos. Kore-eda stresses in interviews that the situation and characters are purely fictional, but Ryota (Hiroshi Abe, a brilliant piece of counterintuitive casting) is clearly in some sense a surrogate for the author. And Kore-eda has been very open about one autobiographical element: the extraordinary, sometimes terrifying Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, popular for more than 40 years) is directly inspired by his own recently deceased mother.