In Nobody Knows, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda told the story of a family of abandoned children and how they struggled to survive on their own in an indifferent, contemporary Japanese society. After a diversion to the samurai world with Hana, Kore-eda returns with Still Walking, a comedy-drama that brings the family back together in a tight setting. However, with all the hidden resentment and family secrets boiling underneath, Still Walking shows that a united family may not be the best way to go, either.
On a hot summer day in a seaside countryside town, the Yokoyama family is gathering once again to mark the anniversary of elder son Junpei's death. The father (Yoshio Harada) has retired from his home medical clinic, though his pride has not retired along with him. The mother (Kirin Kiki) plays the role of the kindly old lady slaving away in the kitchen most of the day, but a mix of grief and resentment towards everything still stirs inside her. The daughter (You, the negligent mother in Nobody Knows) has shown up with her husband and two kids, gossiping with her mother in the kitchen and talking of moving home.
Carrying the most baggage among the surviving members of the Yokoyama family, though, is second son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe). Working freelance in painting restoration, Ryota's career choice has earned the spite of his father, not only because Ryota didn't follow in his father's footsteps to be a doctor, but also because Junpei - the son that died - was the one that did. If parental resentment isn't enough, Ryota is bring his new wife Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) and her son Atsushi to the family home for the first time, with Yukari's widow status already earning the disapproval of Ryota's mother. Over the course of 24 hours, the family will eat, kids will take strolls, and family members will clash, but it's ultimately just another year with the Yokoyama family.
While Kore-eda has woven a complex web of family conflicts and motivations and mixed them with his usual motif of coming to terms with the dead (as well as a few motifs borrowed from the films of Yasujiro Ozu), he chooses to let the story – or the lack of it – run its course naturally. Kore-eda only allows bits of information to come out at any given time, each bit revealed through natural family interaction that one can easily miss. Kore-eda has crafted such a complex work that the anticipation of the reveals drives the audience's expectations and their willingness to invest in the film, but he doesn't let that ancipation drive the plot in any sort of direction. Instead, revelations occur because the characters just so happen to disclose them, and not because the plot structure dictates them to.
These revelations not only come in unassuming ways, but they are also sometimes revealed with a surprising sense of humor. Nothing about Still Walking is particularly comedic. Like the various family secrets, the humor comes from natural, life-like situations and realizations. Not everyone will laugh at the same points, because a key to understanding the film's sense of humor is how well the audience can relate to the seemingly normal, but ultimately dysfunctional comedy. The characters make such an impression along the way there are moments in which you will both cringe and laugh in anticipation of what a character is about to say and how the other character in the interaction will react. That's how well-written the characters are.
Both Kore-eda's ability to create natural settings and the actors' performances help make the audience believe that they are indeed a member of the Yokoyama family for a day. Kore-eda and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki rarely move the camera, often putting it in the middle of the living room with multiple activities going on behind the central conversation. Meanwhile, as he has proven with the intense three-year shooting schedule of Nobody Knows, Kore-eda takes working with actors seriously, and Still Walking's star cast is no exception. Achieving the kind of naturalism portrayed in the film is a tough task for actors, but the cast pulls it off effortlessly, defining what a good ensemble cast is all about.
However, Kirin Kiki often steals the show as the two-faced mother, showing her kind and welcoming side to a visitor in one scene, and then cruelly revealing her true intention of inviting that visitor back every year in another. The layers of grief and resentment Kiki is able to hide in her character is a considerable step up from her saintly mother figure in Tokyo Tower, and is a testament to both Kore-eda's skill as a writer-director and Kiki's 40 years of acting experience.
Despite powerful realizations and character reveals, Kore-eda actively suppresses the possibility of any emotional climax. After all, the film is simply an observation of a family spending 24 hours together in a peaceful seaside town. The general tone of the film matches both its location and its gentle, guitar-driven score (by guitar duo Gontiti). Instead of making the proceedings boring, the tone only serves to enhance the reality of the family's situation, bringing the audience progressively closer to them. The Yokoyamas may not be a particularly likeable family worthy of attention or even sympathy (even the general conclusion is that they're ultimately better apart than together), but Kore-eda has managed to create such a rich and multi-layered work that you will want to keep watching this family even after the film has ended. This is not because they're particularly intriguing characters to observe; it's because you will feel all the happiness and pain of going home and being with your own family. (Kevin Ma, 2009)