I'm not sure why so many marquee auteurs around the globe decided to turn in their "family homecoming" picture last year. The 2008 festival circuit was chock full of 'em, and now, as they're being rolled out by distributors in 2009, I must confess to a bit of familial melodrama burnout. Although many of them have been quite good, I couldn't help but enter the Still Walking screening feeling a sense of resigned apathy. Having neither read nor heard anything about the film prior to seeing it, I only knew that Still Walking was written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose painstakingly deliberate filmmaking style had left me cold in the past. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting in a state of stunned paralysis two hours later, utterly transfixed by this simple yet spellbinding tale.
Although many homecoming movies feature families collapsing under the guise of a celebratory holiday, a meditative tone is established outright when it becomes apparent that the Yokoyamas are gathering to honor the anniversary of their first-born son's death. Still Walking is largely told from the perspective of Ryoto (Hiroshi Abe), the chronically underachieving younger brother who has never been able to compensate for his brother's passing. Unemployed and with second wife in tow, Ryoto feels dread, shame, and insecurity, rather than sorrow. All he can really hope for is that the ordeal ends as quickly and painlessly as possible.
The self-contained, almost claustrophobic setting of Still Walking sets it apart from many of its genre peers. Mostly unfolding over the course of 24 hours within a single home, Kore-eda avoids the sweeping social metaphors of American Beauty or the myth-making of Arnaud Despelchin's fantasy-tinged Christmas Tale. Here, the camera is content to fix its gaze on the subtle dynamics that characterize the Yokoyamas' interaction. The "events" here would be tiny moments in any other film, but the few that do register deliver the type of gut-punching effect that lingers days and even weeks after the closing credits have rolled.
Cinephiles will likely make the connection between Still Walking and the films of Yazujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), whose stylistic influence announces its presence from the first frame. Kore-eda also points to Mikio Naruse (Two in the Shadow) as a key influence, but the film avoids succumbing to mere pastiche. While Still Walking could fit comfortably alongside the works of these canonical filmmakers, the universality of its themes and characters make it an ideal contemporary update, a modern archetype of a long-standing tradition for a now-globalized film community. The fact that Kore-eda's Still Walking could be this stirring, in spite of the deified precedents already set, is a testament to the film's unqualified perfection.