Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

Kore-eda’s Captivating Filmmaking Style

Besides possessing a graceful and fluid style that captures the quirks of fragile human nature and the enigmatic aspects of life as it goes about its daily rhythms, Hirokazu Kore-eda, the celebrated Japanese filmmaker, conceived Still Walking after being inspired by the remorseful feelings we all experience when we lose both of our parents within the past five or six years. In his body of work, he has previously crafted films like Maborosi and Nobody Knows. In Still Walking, the primary focus centers on the reverberations and intuitive aspects of life, as Kore-eda believes this is where the core of life can be unearthed. Indeed, Kore-eda’s cinematic creations offer multiple avenues into our family narratives, allowing us to confront emotions that may have remained concealed for many years. Additionally, as the film explores the expectations and pressures that arise in family interactions and the delicate balance between happiness and anxiety as we grapple with establishing boundaries and expressing our identities, it presents a universal drama that empowers us to face our emotions and navigate life’s intricacies.

Early Years

Kore-eda’s career commenced with producing Super-8 films alongside his peers during high school or college. During that era, Japan lacked film schools, necessitating self-guided learning as the sole viable option. Kore-eda started crafting film scripts from a young age, even though he did not commit them to film. After graduating from Waseda University, he joined a prominent independent company specializing in creating documentary films for television. Kore-eda took the helm of documentary projects spanning diverse subjects, such as the first documented case of HIV in Japan, a man concealing his Korean heritage from his family for half a century, and a woman grappling with her husband’s tragic suicide, a result of compromising his principles due to work pressures.

His aspiration to transition to feature film-making reached an impasse, leading to a profound realization about the insincerity of his scripts and the depth of his remaining learning curve concerning human nature. Kore-eda’s career trajectory transformed extreme detachment into a heartfelt engagement. His documentary films concentrated on individuals navigating emotional challenges, fostering a sense of trust and intimacy between the subjects and the filmmaker. Significantly, Kore-eda deliberately excluded his presence from these documentaries, positioning himself as an external observer. This detachment gradually evolved into a longing for complete creative control when he began feature film production in 1995.

Kore-eda’s struggle was centered on infusing his emotional convictions into his cinematic works. He actively participated in panel discussions at the Tokyo FilmEx festival, openly acknowledging his quest to transcend conventional filmmaking modes. Furthermore, he crafted films with a broader appeal to audiences. In Still Walking, his accomplishment lay in artfully revealing a family’s history and emotional dynamics in the most straightforward manner. He achieved this by adopting an external perspective while delving deeply into the core of familial emotions.

Exploring Parenthood and Nature

Still Walking explores the contrasting dynamics of parenthood and nature within a Japanese family. It initiates a dialogue between a mother and her daughter, Toshiko Yokoyama, centered on the symbolism of root vegetables like carrots and daikon radishes as offerings with phallic connotations to the god of fertility. This symbolism allows Kore-eda’s dysfunctional family characters to engage in relatively straightforward discussions of philosophical and emotionally charged subjects.

The introduction of Kyohei Yokoyama to the family leads him into a social micro-situation that reaffirms his esteemed status as a retired doctor. The older generation is portrayed as ritual participants but maintains emotional detachment. Subsequently, it is revealed that this emotional distance results from the tragic loss of their eldest son, Junpei, who heroically sacrificed his life to save another boy. Junpei and Ryota, their two sons, are constantly evaluated and compared, their strengths measured metaphorically as if they were root vegetables as they contend for roles and recognition within the family’s diverse composition.

The Yokoyama family gathers to commemorate their son’s passing, symbolized by a simmering hot pot, wherein each ingredient submerges and softens in the bitter broth of a household that has lost its central figure. Toshiko expresses her unease, aiming to evoke a similar sentiment in others. In Still Walking, grief does not serve as a means to resolve narrative conflicts; instead, it embodies an enduring process leading to stagnation. Continuity persists because the past remains intertwined with the present, yet it also obstructs the core emotional connection between the living father and son.

While Toshiko diligently attends the Butsudan—a small shrine for paying homage to Junpei—her husband, Atsushi, seeks comfort in the company of Ryota’s newlywed son. The contrast between the focus on life and death alludes to the intricate relationship between contemporary Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism. The paradox between temporal fluidity and emotional stasis propels the narrative forward while preventing it from reaching a definitive resolution.

Unveiling the Family Dynamics

Still Walking is a melodramatic portrayal of a family gathering that unveils the intricate dynamics binding the Yokoyama family. The narrative unfolds as they convene at their parental residence, accompanied by their daughter, Chinami, and her spouse, Junpei. The underlying tension among the parents originates from Toshiko’s deep-seated resentment of Kyohei’s past infidelity.

Kore-eda adeptly depicts the passage of time against a serene backdrop, often isolating select individuals from the broader family context. This deliberate arrangement focuses on various relationships within the family unit, encompassing the dynamics between children and parents, siblings, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, step-grandchildren, and grandparents. These interactions offer insights into the unique personalities at play and the conversations revolving around specific family members.

Meaning and comprehension emerge from the disparities in words spoken across different situations, where seemingly innocuous statements can unintentionally inflict emotional wounds. Kore-eda also weaves moments of solitude into the narrative, granting viewers glimpses into the inner worlds of his characters, removed from the bustling ambiance of the reunion.

His storytelling style amalgamates elements reminiscent of a novel and meticulous attention to documentary details, reflecting his formative years studying literature at Waseda University in Tokyo. During this period, he began crafting nonfiction films for Japanese television. Themes of memory and loss and his distinctive capacity for empathizing with characters undergoing trauma prominently feature in many of his early documentary endeavors in which prominent examples include Still Walking, August Without Him, and Without Memory, all of which delve into the themes of memory, loss, and the profound impact of family reunions on the relationships and individual experiences of those involved.

Documentaries Influencing Fiction

Many of Kore-eda’s documentary films shed light on his fictional works. For instance, he adapted Maborosi from a novel. His fascination with the mnemonic process, as seen in After Life, was sparked by the even more extraordinary case of Without Memory, which was stranger than fiction. Besides his nonfiction endeavors, Kore-eda also sought inspiration from real-life events. In Distance, the concept of a “cult” is exemplified by the infamous Aum Shinrikyo cult, responsible for the brutal sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Nobody Knows, which shares similarities with Kore-eda’s initial documentary, Lessons from a Calf, depicting elementary school children learning to care for a calf and grappling with loss, is loosely based on the scandalous child abandonment cases that shook Japan in the 1980s.

Still Walking, regarded as Kore-eda’s most personal work, incorporates significant autobiographical elements. He has mentioned that he created it as a response to his mother’s passing, whom he cared for during her final days. The film is infused with personalized details and childhood memories. It lingers in the kitchen as daikon radishes are peeled, carrots are chopped, and edamame is washed and salted. The seemingly simple act of frying corn tempura in the film resonates akin to Proust’s madeleine, and Kore-eda meticulously captures the precise details of its preparation, from the kernels of corn on the cob to the cracks in the batter as it meets the hot oil. The film’s title originates from the lyrics of a 1960s hit song, Blue Light Yokohama, a favorite of Kore-eda’s mother. However, this melancholic romantic song carries a contrasting meaning for Toshiko in the film. Kore-eda consistently stands apart from most of his generational peers—many of his most famous contemporaries, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike, embraced genre experimentation and, in their ways, expanded on these radical projects. He more closely aligns with the direct successors of Japan’s classic cinema era. In his treatment of the family drama, a quintessential Japanese genre, he invites comparisons to the most revered filmmakers in his country, such as Yasujiro Ozu.

Ozu-like Themes and Metaphors

At first glance, Still Walking does not lack themes and metaphors reminiscent of Ozu. It primarily revolves around the relationship between parents and children. The film predominantly unfolds in indoor settings adorned with shoji screens and tatami mats. The camera tends to remain fixed, and there are even symbolic elements resembling punctuation marks, like cushions. Occasionally, when scenes occur outdoors, a passing train can be seen crossing the screen. Describing Still Walking as a film that was “nurtured in the shadow” of Ozu, similar to Claire Denis’ homage to Ozu’s Late Spring with 35 Shots of Rum in 2008, would not be entirely inaccurate.

However, it is crucial to recognize that Still Walking does not possess the deep wisdom and restrained storytelling economy characteristic of Ozu’s work. Much like other adaptations of Ozu’s style, such as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumière, Still Walking strives to depict the socio-cultural reality of contemporary Japan. While Ozu’s films often portray ordinary people as exemplars of quiet acceptance, Kore-eda’s society seems less willing to embrace life’s harshness and disappointments. When they do, as Kore-eda illustrates, they bear a closer resemblance to Mikio Naruse’s stubborn and openly suffering characters, a director with a bleaker worldview than Ozu.

Kore-eda’s era witnesses no sentimental breakthroughs—indeed, the film’s epilogue briefly implies that life itself does not offer such breakthroughs. Within this family, individuals and relationships do not undergo fundamental transformations; avoidance prevails over confrontation. Some may interpret this as a form of Japanese politeness. However, at the very least, it is linked to Kore-eda’s perception of how pain and grievances manifest in most families, transcending cultural boundaries—quietly and subcutaneously, expressed through veiled words and actions. Although Kore-eda refrains from providing redemption for his characters, he allows them to experience regret and moments of realization. Hatred may persist indefinitely, and issues may remain unresolved. Still, these emotions, however faint or personal, can be recognized and even understood—a partial definition of familial love, at the very least.

Commemorating Junpei

Still Walking unfolds the narrative of the Yokoyama family, who assemble each year to commemorate the passing of their eldest son, Junpei. Within this family are two children: Chinami, married to a car salesman, and Ryota, a restoration artist striving to fulfill the role of a father to his son. Both parents are still alive, with Kyohei, the patriarch, nursing bitterness over the loss of his beloved son and heir while Toshiko mourns the death of her long-departed son.

This film diverges from the conventional family drama in Ozu’s style by portraying a more disorderly scenario than Ozu’s usual depictions. It employs everyday incidents to allude to the history of each relationship, departing from Ozu’s approach. Unlike Mike Leigh’s films, Still Walking does not emphasize moral lessons. While Ryota reflects on his personal growth, the internal family dynamics gradually emerge.

The title is borrowed from an old sentimental pop song, which holds special significance for Toshiko, the family’s matriarch. Kore-eda underscores that the circumstances and characters are entirely fictional, although Ryota serves as a stand-in for the writer. One autobiographical element becomes apparent when Toshiko draws direct inspiration from his recently deceased mother.

Exploring Family Dynamics

Still Walking is a heartfelt drama that delves into aspects of family life, sibling rivalry, love, respect, and the perplexity of death. Junpei’s ghost looms over the family’s tumultuous interactions, and this spectral figure shares a similar viewpoint: just as butterflies that survive winter will eventually regain their yellow hue. Toshiko interprets it as Junpei’s spirit bestowing blessings upon them, while Yukari’s son embarks on a quest to understand his late father’s lingering essence.

The film’s intentional and contemplative pace, complemented by its picturesque natural settings and soothing music, amplifies its appeal. Kore-eda would revisit these thematic elements in his subsequent cinematic endeavors, including his most recent family drama, After the Storm. In After the Storm, he reunites veteran actress Kirin Kiki and actor Hiroshi Abe, albeit with altered character names from the original film.

The essence of Still Walking endures, transcending the film’s conclusion, as Yoshiko contemplates the enduring nature of family bonds. Kore-eda’s characters and themes transform his body of work, with the depth of meaning steadily evolving throughout his career. Still Walking provides a captivating glimpse into his artistic portfolio, offering profound insights into death’s mysteries and family dynamics’ complexities.

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