The Japanese seriocomedy "Still Walking" is one of those movies in which nothing happens and everything happens. It's about a family gathering that takes place over 24 hours, and at times the pace is so leisurely that I thought I was living every minute of those hours. But if you stay with it, there are pleasures to be had here.
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) has come to the seaside home of his elderly parents for an annual remembrance of the eldest son, Junpei, who died many years ago saving a drowning child. Ryota, who has always been held in low esteem by his stern physician father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), has brought with him his new wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and stepson (Shohei Tanaka), which only adds to the tension. Also present is Ryota's sister, Chinami (You), who has a gratingly squeaky voice, along with her husband and two children. Her family, unlike Ryota's, is blissfully free from familial conflicts with the elders, and functions as a sort of perpetual comic relief. Chinami's biggest argument with her straight-talking mother Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) is over the best way to slice radishes.
(By the way, this is yet another movie, on the heels of "Julie & Julia," to feature numerous close-ups of sumptuous dishes. I'm becoming wary of entering a movie on an empty stomach.)
Ryota, an art restorer, is reluctant to divulge that he is currently jobless. His father figures it out anyway – he has an unerring radar for his son's weaknesses. Junpei had planned on becoming a doctor, only adding to his lustrous martyrdom. Ryota, by contrast, places far less value on professional status. He is more interested in being happy, which is why, almost from the moment he enters his parents' home, he wants to flee. He is still working on his marriage and slowly ingratiating himself with his stepson. He doesn't need the added burden of the same old family dysfunction.
The writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda is best known for "After Life," which was distinctly more artsy-metaphysical than "Still Walking." Here he is trying to approach the ineffable from the inside out – by showing how the mundane can contain multitudes.
At its pinnacle, in the films of the late Yasujiro Ozu ("Tokyo Story"), this approach could indeed work wonders, and in places Kore-eda seems to be reaching for Ozu's magisterial spareness. But more often, he achieves a pleasing ordinariness. The gruff father and his chatty wife at times are not much more than a Japanese variant on Archie and Edith Bunker, and Ryota himself, despite his ongoing turmoil, is a bit of a blank.
But Kore-eda is tough to pigeonhole. Just when you think you're watching a ho-hum domestic comedy, he comes through with something that pierces you. The mother, for example, is not, as she first seems, a dotty dingbat. The disappointment in her marriage comes through in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and we can see how living with her martinet husband has been a trial. She insists on keeping an overstocked refrigerator, which seems harmless until she says it's because it makes her feel safe. In one glorious moment during dinner, she breaks into a song from her youth and suddenly she seems like a girl of 20. Most of the time, though, she is far from sentimental. During a walk with Ryota she sweetly asks if he is planning on having children with his new wife, adding that it's more difficult for couples to divorce if they have children.
"Still Walking" is easy to underestimate because its best moments often seem, on the surface, indistinguishable from its worst. But the film pays off in the end when, almost imperceptibly, the rush of emotions it stirs in us rises to a soft crescendo. Grade: B+