You may not think Still Walking is about very much. It’s a Japanese film about a day in the life of an average Japanese family. Three generations gather at “Grandma’s house” to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the eldest sibling’s accidental death. They eat a lot of meals, take a few walks, take naps, baths, and catch butterflies. Nothing much happens. No sex, violence, or screaming matches. Hardly anyone even raises their voice.
But there is a lot of drama in this film, and its normalcy and universality is exactly what makes it so compelling and, ultimately, heartbreaking (in much the same way as Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours approached quotidian epiphanies earlier this year). This is a film about life, aging, death, and family. Everyone feels all of those things deeply at one point or another.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life), Still Walking is a film that is strongly Japanese. But it is not foreign. It will resonate with anyone with a heartbeat who has ever felt the void of a lost love, lost childhood, or lost hope. Koreeda builds on the minimalist style of Japan’s cinematic master, Yasujiro Ozu, who died the year after Koreeda was born in Tokyo. Still Walking is sort of like Tokyo Story in many ways, a strikingly nondescript glimpse into sublime everydayness. Some of the shots and mise-en-scene so thoroughly evoke Ozu that I almost felt like I was watching a reincarnation of the great director.
In his book The Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader theorizes that Ozu’s filmmaking style was strongly derived from Zen art, for which the most basic principle is mu, the concept of negation, emptiness, and void. “Emptiness, silence, and stillness are positive elements in Zen art and represent presence rather than the absence of something,” noted Schrader.
The structure of Still Walking strikingly recalls Ozu’s zen-like structure, which alternated between “paragraphs” of drama and exposition and “codas” or “pillow shots” of static nature or stillness, in the same way that the space in between the branches of ikebana give form to the overall arrangement, or the vast spaces between the big rocks in a zen rock garden infuses the whole thing with peace and balance.
Likewise, Ozu’s films, wrote Schrader, “are structured between action and emptiness, between indoors and outdoors, between scene and coda:
The conflicts are always explicated indoors, usually in long dispassionate conversations… These indoor discussions are set off by “codas”: still-life scenes of outdoor Japanese life, empty streets and alleys, a passing train or boat, a distant mountain or lake… In Western art one would naturally assume that the codas are inserted to give weight to the paragraphs, but for Ozu, as for Zen, it is precisely the opposite: the dialogue gives meaning to the silence, the action to the still life. Ozu is permeated with mu; it is the single character inscribed on his tomb at Engaku-ji.
In the same way, Still Walking contains long stretches of dialogue and intense interpersonal passive-aggressive dynamics. But between and amid these scenes are shots of flowers, or incense, or trains passing against an ocean backdrop. For every probing shot of an emotion-filled human face, there is an equally probing shot of rice balls or corn being picked off of the cob. Koreeda is not equating humans to corn; He’s simply pointing out that our perception of one is always informed by our experience of the other. All things are bound up in this thing called existence, so that a morning walk to the ocean never exists in a vacuum that is uninformed by the emotions, tensions, and stresses of everyday life.
There is a scene near the end of this film in which three generations of men—grandfather, son, grandson—are walking down the hill from the house to the beach. Though they walk in silence, there is so much being expressed in this passage of time. There is a three-shot of them descending stairs that is particularly evocative: Each man is at a different point in his journey of life, and yet here they are together, still walking, in the same air. When they get to the beach they are standing on the same sand, looking out at the same ocean. And something about the way we see it too—the way this story unfolds cinematically—makes us feel like we are right there with them, so different and yet so much the same.