There is a scene early in “Still Walking” where Grandma is frying fresh corn fritters and she recounts an oft repeated family story about stealing corn from the neighbor’s farm right after moving in to their house 2 decades ago. She recalls how the neighbor later brought over corn as a welcome offering, and how their oldest son Junpei quickly jumped in to say “Mom, we didn’t have to go buy corn at the green grocer’s”, cleverly explaining the cooking corn to save his mom the embarrassment. After she finishes the story, Grandpa chimes in with, “He could be so smart that way!”, as younger son Ryota sits listening awkwardly to this story he’s heard told the same way a hundred times. Much later, Ryota lashes out at his father and tells him that the famous Junpei line from that story that he always finds so clever was said by Ryota, not Junpei.
This one simple interaction tells you everything you need to know about the family dynamics and relationships in an instant. You see, Junpei died 12 years earlier, and they are remembering him on the anniversary of his death. And Junpei was a doctor who was going to step into Grandpa’s shoes after retirement, unlike Ryota, who is a lowly art and cultural artifact restoration specialist. Naturally, Ryota has always felt like a disappointment while Junpei has been honored and revered by the family in death. So it is a real twist of the knife to hear his father lavish the praise he never gives Ryota onto Junpei for something that Ryota said. It is these careless ways in which family members hurt one another that is really at the heart of Still Walking.
Our relationships with members of our family are always the most complex and complicated ones, especially those between parents and children. Our patterns of emotional and behavioral response are ingrained from birth for children, and for the parents, they are inherited from the previous generations. I think most of us have experienced how we can change and evolve as adults and be completely different people in our adult lives, yet when we get home around our parents we can so quickly revert right back to the same emotional and behavioral responses as in childhood over the tiniest little thing. When you add that reality to the unique responsibilities that come with the parent-child relationship, it is nearly impossible for parents and children to communicate openly and honestly in a way where both parties feel heard and understood, even as adults. For many, these patterns of interaction never evolve and so the relationship does not either. How easy it is to carelessly hurt someone we love when we haven’t taken the time to really hear them and understand them as merely a human. In fact, Ryota at one point ends a defensive diatribe to his parents with a soft plea to be heard and understood by saying, “we’re only human”.
As proof of the complexity of family relationships, I have devoted so much time only scratching the surface of how 4 of the family members relate to one another, and yet there are so many more familial dynamics at play to explore. Ryota also has a sister with an immature husband and 2 rambunctious children who want to move in and help take care of Grandma and Granpda in his place since Ryota has no interest in that responsibility which traditionally would fall to him after Junpei’s death. There is also Ryota’s new wife, a widow and mother of his new stepson, desperately trying to be accepted by his family. And of course there is the strange boy-man they invite over every year, the one whose life was saved by Junpei, the one who the family blames for Junpei’s death. All of these dynamics are at play in one house on one day. But of course what makes this film so beautiful, and what makes a lot of classic Japanese cinema beautiful, is that you understand everything about this family through the visual storytelling and their interactions, but nothing is made overt. It is a realistic and subtle reflection of the cultural family dynamics specific to Japan that of course any Japanese person will recognize, but that I also think anyone from any country will recognize. While the manifestations these dynamics take from one culture to the next may change, they themselves are quite universal. However, not many modern filmmakers reveal them through film as elegantly as Hirokazu Koreeda.
I’d like to end with a quick conversation about Koreeda’s aesthetic style as a filmmaker, and why he is such an elegant and subtle storyteller. The advice I have most taken to heart as a filmmaker myself is the old adage, “show, don’t tell”. The most powerful thing about film as an unique art form is the ability tell a story through moving images. When working in a visual medium, why have a character or a narrator explain something through dialogue when it can shown through character action or emotion? Koreeda is a master of “show, don’t tell”, from the way he frames still shots within a space to reveal only and exactly what he wants you to see, to the way his actors give you so much information about their emotional state through their actions, their posture, and their reserved but revealing expressions. He also is brilliant at mixing in brief moments of absolute cinematographic beauty into the more intentionally mundane but expertly composed shots of everyday family life, better mirroring the rhythms of real life. Koreeda has proven himself a master visual storyteller over the past 2 decades and I highly recommend you check out any of his family dramas to gain insight into Japanese family cultural dynamics while also possibly gaining a new perspective on your own family dynamics.