Film : A Japanese family reunion at Katharine Cornell
Filmgoers who admire the late, great Japanese director Yasujiru Ozu will savor the quiet but elegant pleasures of "Still Walking." The new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda comes to the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 14, in a screening sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.
Like Ozu's masterpiece, "Tokyo Story," "Still Walking" depicts the annual visit of adult children to their parents' home. The story focuses on Ryota Yokoyama (Hiroshi Abe), an art restorer between jobs who with his new wife and stepson visits his parents on the anniversary of his older brother Junpei's death.
Junpei, who drowned rescuing a child, still holds a more powerful position in the family home than either Ryota or his sister, Chinami (You). As the second, overlooked son, Ryota dreads the annual visit that he is making this time with Yukari (Yui Natasukawa) and her son by a previous marriage.
Family dynamics unfold slowly and subtly as the film follows the family's anniversary rituals. Both Chinami and Yukari seem relatively comfortable in their roles as submissive females, while Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is unexpectedly feisty and sharp-tongued, counterbalancing her gruff, retired physician/husband, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada). Her feelings about the visit by the now-grown child who her beloved late son Junpei had saved may shock the viewer.
By refusing to telegraph information about the family members -- even their names -- but instead letting it emerge naturally through the narrative, the director requires the audience to stay active in deciphering what is happening and why.
The antic energy of the grandchildren goes on outside, seen and overheard in the background, while the main action occurs inside the house. When his sister pulls out a schoolboy essay by Ryota about wanting to grow up and become a doctor like his father, Ryota grabs it and crumples it up angrily. Later he will tape it back together.
One of director Kore-eda's more masterly skills is his ability to juggle many different viewpoints without losing hold of the story. As untalkative, even nasty at times, as Grandfather Kyohei appears to be, he gently draws out his new step-grandson by asking him questions about himself. Each character reveals himself in small, touching moments.
One of the hallmarks of Asian filmmaking is its emphasis on creating the setting for its own sake, and using it to help establish a mood and tempo that's very different mood from what is found in Western cinema. For example, in "Still Walking," there's an artful moment in which attention is given to the grandchildren reaching up and touching tree blossoms. The same tree blossoms are featured again in another scene.
The precipitous steps from the Yokoyama house down to the nearby beach could provide a still-life scene on its own. Shots of an empty room, a skyline or Junpei's gravesite evoke a sense of timelessness that Western films often don't linger on.
"Still Walking" portrays modern Japanese family life with all its flaws and cruelties, but it also includes the deep affection that exists within families. The point of the film's title, which may first seem puzzling or off the point, becomes paradoxically clear by the end of "Still Walking."
"Still Walking," Sat., Nov. 14, 7:30 pm. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets $8 (MV Film Society members, $5). Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, MVFilmSociety.com.
Brooks Robards writes about books, film, and art for The Times.