Yui Natsukawa and Hiroshi Abe, in 'Still Walking'

Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
(2009, Not Rated, 114 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking has a lot of the qualities that have held me at arm’s length from similarly styled films — slow pacing, spare plotting, static camera — with the difference that this one invited me in. It’s subtle and perceptive about how a family continues to struggle long after the death of its firstborn son.

Junpei drowned fifteen years ago saving another man’s life, taking many of the family’s hopes and dreams with him. His sister Chinami (You) is now married and the mother of two children. His younger brother Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is also married, but his wife (Yui Natsukawa) is a widow with a son from the previous marriage, and his parents disapprove; as their last remaining son, he should have a woman and child of his own and not be someone’s second choice.

Koreeda emphasizes the observance of traditions, which simultaneously bring the family together and reveal how much they have drifted apart. They meet every year to relive their heartache, visit Junpei’s grave, and walk to the shore, which represents to them what they’ve lost. They invite the man whom Junpei saved, now a sweating, overweight underachiever who apologizes for being alive; Junpei’s mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), explains the real reason for inviting him year after year in a scene that is profoundly bitter and sad. The family is united in their rituals of pain, but they might be all that unites them anymore.

Though reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, it reminds me more of a very different family drama: Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, alike in how well it shows a family brought together by ceremony but torn apart by tragedy and recriminations they can hardly bring themselves to voice; resentment simmers under the surface of ordinary interactions. We see it most strongly in the reactions of Ryota, whose expression sinks during warm recollections of Junpei. His brother has been immortalized by death; fifteen years later, his ghost exerts more influence than the living. One of the film’s most touching scenes shows a butterfly entering the house. Toshiko chases it, insisting that Junpei has returned to them.

Their traditions may outlive them all, but is that tragic or hopeful? I think a little of both. Throughout the film, tradition acts as a means of avoiding important truths, of dwelling in grief while neglecting what remains. But in the end it may also be a means of honoring what came before, preserving it and holding it dear, while still walking forward.