Still Walking—Grief by Koreeda Hirokazu

Accepting the impermanence of things…

Koreeda wrote, directed and edited Still Walking, which came out in 2008 following his mother’s death. It won eleven awards. His eight films since then are highly praised for their insight into family and everyday lives. A far cry from the Hollywood blockbuster, Koreeda has been likened to Japan’s old master, Ozu Yasujiro, whose 1972 masterpiece Tokyo Story is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

Set in and around the Yokoyama family home in the seaside city of Yokohama, Still Walking revolves around Yokoyama Junpei’s death. His siblings, Chinami and Ryota, return as custom on the anniversary of Junpei’s death with their families, reuniting with their elderly parents — Kyohei and Toshiko are set in their ways; they haven’t moved on like their children. In Still Walking, we see each family member’s vested interest come to light. For example, Chinami tries to expedite matters concerning her inheritance. Ryota, as the now eldest son, defies his responsibilities and expectations, going against both his father and Japanese tradition, discontinuing his father’s life’s work in the process. As for Ryota’s widowed wife Yukari, she copes with old prejudices and her son Atsushi must come to terms with a new father.

Even after fifteen years, the anniversary of Junpei’s death conjures up a host of emotions, resentments, and coping mechanisms which ebb and flow inside the Yokoyama’s beautiful home like the ocean.

For Koreeda, the same things live on…

Like Ozu, Koreeda’s subject matter centres around domestic, mundane places. In addition, his relationships are built up over time, are unique to his style, and therefore cannot be reproduced by others. Laziness then is certainly not the reason for reusing locations (as he does in Our Little Sister in 2015) or recasting Kiki Kirin — a veteran of Japanese cinema — repeatedly. Kiki (who plays Toshiko in Still Walking) famously refused roles she thought better suited somebody else. We know that Koreeda listened to her and Ehara Yukiko (who plays Chinami) backstage, writing what they said into the script. “You have such a pretty forehead, you should show it off more” and “What would make you uncomfortable?” “Commenting on my dimples.” exemplify wonderful chemistry in Still Walking, bringing light relief through playful humour. (Sadly, Kiki passed away in 2018.)

Meticulous formal elements…

Koreeda’s attention to family is outstandingly detailed. One such formal element becomes apparent as the Yokoyama’s climb arduous, steep steps in order to reach their home. We see Yukari struggle to climb them with her suitcase (metaphorical baggage). Kyohei and Toshiko, on the other hand, who are used to scaling them, can do so easily despite their old age. These stairs speak of ascension, of a closeness to Junpei but also to old prejudices and the generational divide. This motif of climbing stairs plays its part in the Oscar-winning film Parasite, as well.

Koreeda said in an interview that “no one really says anything important” in Still Walking. Though what’s unsaid lingers in a congested and familial atmosphere. One way this is achieved is by “characters [speaking] their lines while doing something else.” Underlying symbolism refers back to the elephant in the room: daikon radishes are phallic offerings to the Buddhist god of bliss. Chinami’s children smack a watermelon behind a heated exchange. These are deliberate, obfuscating acts which allude to the family’s tacit understanding and bereavement.

In one scene, patriarch Kyohei interrupts his son in the foreground and scolds his grandchildren. “Don’t hit the precious plant,” he says. “It might break open.”

Even if we leave, it’s still there…

Though we might want to forget about grief, Still Walking shows us how the past lives on and why keeping it around us is helpful. This aggregation of contradictory ideas is seen through Koreeda’s filmmaking techniques, too. The camera will follow a character leaving a scene but the focal point remains the same. Accompanying Ryota as he sits on the bathroom floor, bending backwards (preparing a watermelon), we resume his conversation in the living room. This strained, claustrophobic moment shows the Yokoyama’s as intimate and yet distant.

The narrator in Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil (a mediate meditation on memory in Japan) describes a similar scene where weary passengers are taking a ferry back from Hokkaido: “Small fragments of war enshrined in everyday life.” Many of these passengers are contorted like Ryota. They are temporarily removed, in limbo.

This stepping away can be considered a displacement of time which gives Ryota room to breathe. Take Atsushi too as he carefully observes Toshiko vehemently cleanse Junpei’s grave. It’s an experience that offers a glimpse into a future with his new family. Watching her grieve is a kind of prognostication for Atsushi which helps him to accept his new world.

The Japanese entertain a closeness to death.

Through enshrinement at Junpei’s grave as well as at their kamidana (household shrine), the Yokoyama’s apply “the faculty of communing with things.” This implies transportation: we can enter into and become something other. Sans Soleil’s narrator goes even further with a Japanese person’s view that, “the partition that separates life from death does not appear so thick to us (as it does to a Westerner).” Besides the all-too-real threat of natural disaster, rituals such as the Tokorozawa Doll Memorial Celebration, where discarded dolls are brought to shrines to be burned, pervade Japan. (There are ceremonies for brushes, abacuses and rusty needles, too.) Communing with these dolls not only mourns lost childhood (and therefore regains it, for a moment) but intercedes on behalf of them. The dolls are not forgotten; instead they are revered and remembered. Therefore, by respecting the impermanence of things, these rituals bring us closer to death.

The innate uncertainty of life…

In Still Walking’s final scene, the camera takes us up into the sky overlooking the Pacific ocean, a body which “somehow remains unexplainable,” as artist Wolfgang Tillmans muses. “There’s some kind of secret there… the state of aggregation…” This is a fitting end to Still Walking, a film heavily laden with aggregating factors. There is of course the reunion that in itself is an aggregation of the family and also the Yokoyama’s ethereal communion with Junpei. I believe Still Walking gives us the sense that communing with things takes us out of non-linear time, and that this is a great example of accepting impermanence.

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Joseph Jackson

Creative writing devotee. Shortlisted for Bibliophone’s 1000 Words Heard for INARA.