I picked this up because everyone seemed to be saying good things about it. It's an understated family drama that's nearly two hours long in which nothing happens and the family still hasn't got over the death of their son twelve years earlier. I know, I know. Sounds like a slog, doesn't it? Surprisingly, it's not. I'd heard that it was incredibly funny, almost enough that you could classify it as a comedy... personally I can't go along with that because it didn't make me laugh, but it does conjure up an endearing, good-natured environment that's a lot of fun to visit and you're perfectly happy just spending time with these people.
Mind you, I was watching without English subtitles, so it's possible that I was missing lots of comedic nuances in the dialogue.
What I didn't know before I put this on was that everyone seems to be comparing it to Yasujiro Ozu. Great. This time last week I hadn't watched anything by the guy and even now only one of the two films I've seen of his so far resembles what people think of as classic Ozu. All I can do then is pass on the comparison. Ozu liked subtle, minimalist stories about contemporary Japanese families, often involving generational conflict, and that's certainly a good description of Still Walking.
The Yokoyama family is coming home for Obon, which is a Buddhist festival to commemorate the dead. They're not Buddhists, but that doesn't matter in Japan. The core of the family are Grandma, Grandpa and their two grown-up children, Chinami and Ryota. Until twelve years ago there was another son, Junpei, but he drowned saving someone's life and there doesn't seem to be anyone else's photo up in a little family shrine. The grandparents are both still alive, after all. Chinami has a husband and presumably a couple of children, unless those two were a couple of strange kids running around the house for some reason I'd missed. They're the normal ones. Ryota though has a wife and a stepson, whose original father having died quite a while ago. Here's where the trouble lies. Ryota's a nice guy, but he doesn't get on with his dad, who basically thinks the wrong son drowned. That's about it, really. I've just summarised the plot. We get to know these people. We see the 24-hour period during which they make Obon food, visit a grave and so on, then everyone goes home and Grandpa says, "That's that until New Year, then."
The story's all about the characters, obviously. The youngsters are pretty straightforward, really. I liked Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), whose only crime appears is to be an out-of-work art restorer. His wife's doing that snappish "I'm not angry" irritation of a pissed-off Japanese wife at the start of the film, but as soon as she's in front of the in-laws she's doing everything she can to fit in and be nice. The kid seems a pretty straight-up kid and they've picked a decent child actor to play him, even managing a bit of actual performance of in the scene where they're visiting the grave. As for the other side of the family, his sister is utterly normal and pleasant in every way except for the fact that she talks like Daffy Duck. The actress's name is You (originally Yukiko Ehara) and she used to be a pop singer, but there's nothing wrong with her performance here and I'd never have guessed her background if I hadn't looked it up. Besides, with that voice she deserves our pity.
No, the colourful ones are the oldsters. Grandma is being played by Kirin Kiki and she's a charming little matriarch with some well-hidden nasty depths. I liked her a lot. Meanwhile Grandpa (Yoshio Harada) is a grumpy, surly bastard who's a retired doctor and wants all his sons and grandsons to follow in his footsteps. At one point he tries to talk Ryota's stepson into becoming a doctor too. The guy's a git, but I didn't mind having him around. He's not a party pooper or anything. He just avoids talking to people and sometimes runs off and pretends to be working in his study.
For the most part, we just hang out with these people. They're nice. They don't shout and scream at each other, but just do standard family stuff and talk about things. It's all determined to be naturalistic, with nothing happening that wouldn't really happen in a family reunion like this in its allotted 24 hours. Grandpa's sitting on a little thundercloud in the corner, but at least he's not being a drama queen about it. Grandma seems to think daikon is the greatest vegetable in the world, but we're all allowed our eccentricities. There are however a few surprising scenes, such as the one in which we learn exactly why every year the family invites around the guy whose life Junpei saved, or the scene with the butterfly. That last one was poignant.
I liked this film without going apeshit for it or anything. It sustained its length far better than you'd expect and it's charming and civilised without for a moment being toothless. There's plenty of emotional force underneath that surface. However that said, at the end of the day it's still a film in which nothing really happens. I'm happy that I've seen it, but I don't know if I'd be running out to watch hundreds more like it. Nevertheless it won quite a few awards (including a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Kirin Kiri from the Japanese Academy) and was submitted to Cannes, although not selected.
I'm intrigued by what I hear about one or two other Hirokazu Koreeda films, though. Nobody Knows (2004) is about four children left to fend for themselves in Tokyo and is apparently quite powerful, while Afterlife (1998) is a fantasy set in a way station for the recently dead. Is it wrong of me to be more interested in the latter? Ah well. They'll both go on the list...