Still Walking treads softly but carries a big impact

A serene, naturalistic drama from Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda explores family tensions

The American perspective on Japanese culture tends to obsess over the more extreme entertainment forms — the bloody samurai films, the kinky anime, the sadistic game shows — that tend to drown out the soft-spoken ones. A long tradition of Japanese film, frequently associated with Yasujirō Ozu, emphasizes serenity and naturalism. Contemporary filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda unmistakably shows Ozu’s influence and crafts the kinds of movies that calm you down rather than amp you up.

Still Walking depicts a family reunion fraught with tensions. While the tensions never explode, Koreeda observes the undercurrents so closely, the audience feels less like observers than guests at the table within arm’s reach of the tempura. That proximity may qualify as within harm’s way, given the Yokoyama family’s capacity for resentment: Paterfamilias Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada), a retired doctor, at one point snaps to one of his grown children, “It was my hard work that built this house! Why do you call it ‘Grandma’s house?’”

The film shows roughly 24 hours in a gathering to observe the death of the eldest son, who, even in death, casts a shadow over surviving son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe). Kyohei also resents Ryota for spurning the family profession of medicine for a marginal career in the arts. Meanwhile, Ryota’s mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), shows only minor acceptance for his new wife, a widow with a young son. Ryota’s earthy sister Chinami (played by the amusing, squeaky-voiced actress known as “You,” spelled with English letters) and her brood at times have to labor to keep things light. One short montage show Ryota’s stepson and Chinami’s kids bonding during casual play. The scene conveys acceptance into the family without the emotional spoon-feeding usually evidenced in films about family dynamics.

With a title that suggests stillness as well as endurance, Still Walking offers a quietly compelling story in which tenderness can disguise cruelty. Kindly Toshiko reveals a surprising mean streak concerning a young man she associates with her son’s death. At times the director draws conspicuous attention to the lingering effects of that untimely demise, and you almost await someone to drawl “The wrong kid died!” à la Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Though friendly on the surface, most of the family members nurse grudges and pick at emotional scabs.

Still Walking isn’t nearly as devastating as Nobody Knows, Koreeda’s 2004 study of abandoned children in Tokyo. Nevertheless, it has stealthy effectiveness as a cautionary tale. You can recognize behaviors from your own family gatherings, and take steps to ensure that relationships don’t degrade like the Yokoyamas’.