Still Walking (2008)
As with some family reunions, my second viewing of Still Walking was quite painful. I saw it at home with a cousin with whom I had shared family reunions in my youth. Her general comment was: there is a certain coldness between parents and children and between the old couple themselves, but maybe that’s what it is like in Japanese families.
When I saw Still Walking at the NFT I was overwhelmed by the familiarity of the atmosphere of a family gathering. I loved the mother and daughter talking cooking together and gossiping, with the mother’s familiar repeated recollections, the father’s grumpiness and detachment, the children running all over the place. I appreciated the efforts of the daughter to avoid conflicts and her interest in moving in with her parents ‘to look after them’ and of the son-in-law trying to ingratiate himself but forgetting to do what he promised. I recognised the new daughter-in-law and her child trying hard but failing to fit in. I somehow did not completely appreciate the unresolved grief of the loss of the elder son that the reunion was commemorating.
The story of the death of the elder child while saving a friend, the bitterness of the father, the revenge of the mother against the rescued man was a surprise. At the Q and A session with Kore Eda this subject was not raised but he mentioned the fact that for the dialogue he only used actual sentences that were used by the cast.
On second viewing I found the portrayal of the grieving old couple quite unacceptable, and dare I say, ageist. I found their resentful attitude and even nastiness towards the rescued man, depicted as an inadequate figure of fun, exaggerated. They both express openly and viciously their hatred. In fact the old couple appear in the whole film as selfish and unpleasant…
The couple express openly throughout the film prejudices on marriage, work ethic and careers.
What may have escaped me is the class and generational elements of the families interactions. The parents are well off and the father is very proud of his status as a doctor. He is treated with respect by his neighbours. The mother sticks with her traditional ideas about families, choice of a partner and when to have children. There is a certain distance between the couple. (The grandmother does not hesitate to recall her husband’s affair in front of everybody.)
The daughter and her family appear as secondary in the story. She tries to smooth out the conflicts in conversation. Her keenness to move in with her parents reveals a financial need. This is reinforced by the characterisation of the son-in-law as ineffectual. He is asked to do the menial job of mending some tiles in the bathroom but forgets to do so.
It is when the sister and family leave that the father and mother open up and reveal the cruelty of their yearly invitation. The mother even expresses the wish to carry on punishing the rescued unfortunate man. Having shown no interest in his grandchildren, the father shows some hope in the adopted son when the child shows curiosity in the array of medicines lining the office of the retired doctor.
The surviving son, Ryota, his wife and adopted child represent the new generation. Ryota a jobless art restorer feels strongly the disapproval of his father, in particular because he is unemployed at the moment. But he has the decency of criticising his father for the language he uses to describe the low class survivor.
The gift of a Kimono by the mother to her daughter-in-law seems to soften her character but her immediate advice that it would be better if she did not have another child…. somehow does not.
Although the goodbyes feel warm enough, the young couple decide not to spend the night again in the family home.
The last shots show Ryota, wife, young boy and younger daughter tending the family grave.
I find it strange that no commentaries are made in the reviews on the representation of the grieving old couple in this film. The Q and A session with Kore Eda did not mention the traditional relationships and ways of behaving between parents and children in Japanese customs. Neither does the film offer any way to sympathise with the grieving grandparents.