Complicity (コンプリシティ, Kei Chikaura, 2018)

Complicity posterWith an ageing population and an economy trapped in a long period of stagnation, Japan has found itself in an awkward moment of possible crisis as it begins to realise it will need to embrace immigration or face a serious labour shortage. Like many nations, unfortunately, much of Japan remains uncomfortable with the idea of overseas labour especially when it comes to “low skilled” work in construction, manufacturing, and casual jobs such those in restaurants and convenience stores. Given government intransigence and pressing need, workers from other areas of Asia are often employed illegally and subject to exploitation by gangs or unscrupulous employers.

The hero of Kei Chikaura’s Complicty (コンプリシテ), Chen Liang (Lu Yulai), finds himself in just this position as he leaves his sickly mother and feisty grandma alone in rural China in the hope of making enough money in Japan to come home and restart the family business. What he discovers, however, is that he’s essentially been trafficked as cheap labour and is already in hock for an ID card he was conned into paying three times the going rate for on the pretext it was “safer”. Now living under the name Liu Wei, Chen Liang is disturbed to receive calls on his new phone intended for his namesake but is tempted when Liu Wei receives a job offer from an employment agency. Passing himself off as his cover identity, Chen Liang takes the job only latterly realising it’s the rather incongruous position of a trainee chef in a family-owned soba restaurant.

Against expectation, ageing soba chef Hiroshi (Tatsuya Fuji) and his daughter Kaori (Kio Matsumoto) are warm and welcoming people who are actually a little bit excited that someone from China wants to learn about soba. Taken in almost as a member of the family, Chen Liang begins to feel conflicted – he is after all lying to them, at least about his name and circumstances, and his presence in their home might cause them trouble if he is ever found out. Meanwhile, he also strikes up a friendship with an artist who is learning Mandarin but has to lie to her too, pretending they may one day meet up in Beijing when in reality he has never even been there.

His burgeoning romance with Hazuki (Sayo Akasaka) is what precipitates his downfall as she, unaware he is undocumented, reports his stolen wallet to the police. The lies do not stop there – Chen Liang is also lying to his worried mother back at home who thinks he’s working in an office, while she is simultaneously lying to him in pretending everything’s fine in order to facilitate his “happy” life in Japan where he is supposed to make lots of money and come back a wealthy man. In order to make his dream succeed, Chen Liang must become Liu Wei at the exclusion of all else, forsaking his life as Chen Liang and living carefully as if he has nothing to fear.

Chen Liang is onto a good thing and has fared much better than some of his friends who either got themselves picked up by the police for doing the gang’s dirty work or found themselves out in the cold with no feasible way to get back “home”. Hiroshi’s son, with whom he seems to have some kind of bad family history, looks down on Chen Liang unable to understand why his father employed someone from China when the business is on the rocks. His attitude seems to be one shared by many (though not the universally supportive customers in Hiroshi’s soba shop) who see only difference rather than commonality. Despite the language barrier, Hiroshi and Chen Liang are often able to communicate through written characters, while another poignant moment of bonding sees Chen Liang sing the Mandarin lyrics over the top of Hazuki’s cheerful refrain of a popular Japanese song by Teresa Teng beloved all across Asia. Hiroshi himself was born in Beijing at the end of the war – a painful reminder of the complicated history between the two nations, but also one of how much they are interconnected and how little place of birth has to do with cultural identity.

Emphasising how much they have in common rather than the various ways in which Chen Liang differs from the world around him, Chikaura paints a much more sympathetic portrait of a migrant worker than the one usually found in the media. Filling the void left behind by Hiroshi’s own resentful son, Chen Liang becomes a valued and trusted member of the family who are in a sense “harbouring” him but to protect rather than exploit. Pushed to go to Japan despite his misgivings and drifting into the soba shop job through accidental opportunism, Chen Liang had in a sense abandoned his identity in avoiding making concrete decisions. Being Liu Wei was also a way to hide from his insecurities and fears for the future, but only through the unconditional love he received under false pretences is he finally able to reclaim his name, fugitive but free at last. A powerful plea for empathy and cross cultural connection, Complicity is a beautifully drawn character study in which kindness and compassion eventually open new paths for a conflicted young man trying to find his place in an often hostile world.


Complicity was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s – Toki no Nagare ni Mi wo Makase

Mandarin version – I Only Care About You

Hana (花よりもなほ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2006)

Hana poster 1The heart of the samurai movie lies in the conflict between human feeling and duty to one’s code, unexpectedly the code usually wins but its victory is often tragic. Following a series of bleak modern dramas, Hirokazu Koreeda took his first (and so far only) foray into the jidaigeki with Hana (花よりもなほ, Hana yori mo Naho), stopping to ask if the entirety of the samurai ethos was founded more on pride and a sense of entitlement than a supposedly high ideal of honour of justice, and if perhaps the negative legacy of the samurai era is one that continues to be passed on through toxic masculinity and the patriarchal primacy of problematic fathers.

Set in 1702, the action revolves around noble hearted samurai Soza (Junichi Okada) who has been living in a rundown tenement ally for the last three years looking for the man who killed his father in a pointless quarrel over a game of Go in order to avenge his death. Despite being a fine samurai and heir to a dojo, Soza’s big secret is that he’s not much of a swordsman and is also tenderhearted which leaves him doubly conflicted in his mission. Unwilling to admit he has simply come to like living among these “ordinary” people, and most particularly alongside the widow Osae (Rie Miyazawa) and her young son Shinbo, Soza has perhaps begun to slack off and no is longer looking very hard for his quarry, willingly allowing himself to be conned into buying meals for the cheeky Sado (Arata Furuta) who already has tabs running all over town.

Unlike the majority of samurai tales, Koreeda deliberately shifts the focus to the poor – routinely oppressed by an unscrupulous landlord who has even taken to selling their excrement for extra money just to make sure they are as thoroughly exploited as possible. These people exist so far out of the samurai world that it might as well not exist for them and its rules are nothing more than a ridiculous affectation when your primary concerns are how to keep yourself fed for the day and make sure your house doesn’t suddenly fall down while you’re out. These facts are well and truly brought home to Soza when, knowing he has little chance of winning anyway, he is challenged to a fight by jaded street punk Sode (Ryo Kase) who is keen to prove to little Shinbo that dojo skills mean nothing in the real world. Soza gets a pounding, but somehow wins people’s hearts anyway if only for being so easily humiliated and bearing it with good grace.

Lessons to little Shinbo, who has figured out his father is probably dead but worries that maybe his mother still doesn’t know, becomes a persistent motif as Koreeda embraces his favourite theme – good fathers and bad. Soza’s samurai code pushes him towards martial rigour and the necessity of obeying his father’s wishes which in this case would be hating the man who killed him and avenging his death. Hate is, however, something the fair-minded Soza finds difficult even if he seems to have a fair amount of inner conflict towards his father whom even his cheerful uncle describes as a joyless prude. Osae, sensing Soza’s inner pain, points him in the right direction in remarking that if all his father left behind for him was hate then that legacy would be too sad. Eventually, Soza remembers that there were other things, better things, that his father taught him and that he could pass on to Shinbo which aren’t about pointless cycles of revenge killing and century old grudges. He can honour the spirit of his duty without having to obey it to the letter.

Meanwhile, Koreeda deliberately contrasts Soza’s gradual confidence in his humanitarianism with the stubborn pride of the 47 ronin who are also hiding out in the tenement ally while they bide their time waiting to strike. Soza manages to effect his “revenge” with some theatrical subterfuge, whereas the 47 (well, in the end 46) ronin take theirs for real but not altogether honourably and end up becoming legend overnight, earning the tenement a brief reprieve after the landlord threatens to close it down through becoming a tourist spot. The title, apparently inspired by the death poem of Lord Asano whose seppuku triggered the series of incidents later retold as the legend of the Chushingura, alludes to the nihilistic pointlessness of the samurai ideal of a death as elegant as falling cherry blossoms, later imbuing it with earthier, warmer wisdom as an unexpected fount of profundity affirms that the reason cherry blossoms fall so beautifully is that they know they will soon bloom again.


Hana was screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective playing at the BFI Southbank in April and May 2019.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Miwa Nishikawa, 2016)

long excuse posterSelf disgust is self obsession as the old adage goes. It certainly seems to ring true for the “hero” of Miwa Nishikawa’s latest feature, The Long Excuse (永い言い訳, Nagai Iiwake) , in which she adapts her own Naoki Prize nominated novel. In part inspired by the devastating earthquake which struck Japan in March 2011, The Long Excuse is a tale of grief deferred but also one of redemption and self recognition as this same refusal to grieve forces a self-centred novelist to remember that other people also exist in the world and have their own lives, emotions, and broken futures to dwell on.

Sachio Kinugasa (Masahiro Motoki) is a formerly successful novelist turned TV pundit. As his hairstylist wife, Natsuko (Eri Fukatsu), gives his hair a trim he angrily turns off the television on which one of the programmes he appears on is playing and returns to petulantly needle his wife about perceived slights including “deliberately” using his real name in front of important publishers “to embarrass him”. Upset but bearing it, Natsuko takes all of this in her stride though her husband is in a particularly maudlin mood today, reminding her once again about his intense feelings of self loathing. Shortly after finishing Sachio’s haircut, Natsuko throws on a coat and grabs a suitcase – she’s late to meet a friend with whom she is going on a trip. Sachio barely waits for the door to close before picking up his phone and texting his mistress to let her know that his wife is away.

Later, Sachio figures out that at the moment his wife, her friend Yuki (Keiko Horiuchi), and a busload of other people plunged over a guard rail on a mountain road and into a frozen lake, he was rolling around in his marital bed with a much younger woman. Now playing the grieving husband, Sachio seems fairly indifferent to his recent tragedy but writes an improbably literary funeral speech which boils down to wondering who is going to cut his hair, which he also makes a point of checking in the rear view mirror of the funeral car, now that his wife is gone.

So self obsessed is Sachio that he can’t even answer most of the policeman’s simple questions regarding the identification of his wife – what was she wearing, what did she eat for dinner, is there anything at all he can tell them to confirm the identity of his wife’s body? The answer is always no – he doesn’t remember what she wore (he was busy thinking about texting his mistress), ate dinner separately, and didn’t even know the name of the friend Natsuko was going to meet. The policeman tries to comfort him with the rationale that it’s normal enough to have grown apart a little over 20 years, but the truth is that Sachio was never very interested in his wife. As a funeral guest points out, Natsuko had her own life filled with other people who loved her and would have appreciated the chance to pay their respects in the normal fashion rather than becoming mere guests at Sachio’s stage managed memorial service.

Sachio’s lack of sincere reaction to his wife’s passing stands in stark contrast to the husband of her friend, Yoichi (Pistol Takehara), who is a wailing, broken man and now a widowed single father to two young children. Yoichi is excited to finally meet Sachio about whom he heard so much from “Nacchan” his wife’s best friend and the children’s favourite auntie. Sachio knew nothing of this important relationship in his wife’s life, or much of anything about her activities outside of their home.

When Natsuko left that last time, she paused in the doorway somewhat finally to remind Sachio to take care of the house in her absence but neither of these two men know how to look after themselves from basic household chores like using the washing machine to cooking and cleaning, having gone from a mother to a wife and left all of the “domestic” tasks to their women. Eventually feeling low, Sachio decides to respond to Yoichi’s suggestion they try to ease their shared grief by taking the family out for dinner, only he invites them to a fancy, upscale place he goes to often which is neither child friendly nor particularly comfortable for them seeing as they aren’t used to such extravagant dining. Yoichi, otherwise a doting father but often absent due to his job as a long distance truck driver, neglects to think about his daughter’s dangerous crab allergy and necessity of carrying epinephrin just in case, never having had to worry about something as basic as feeding her.

Hearing that Yuki’s son Shinpei (Kenshin Fujita) is quitting studying for middle school exams because he needs to take care of his sister, Sachio makes the improbable suggestion that he come over and help out while Yoichi is away on the road. Becoming a second father to someone else’s children forces Sachio into a consideration of his new role but his publicist cautions him against it. Whipping out some photos of his own, he tells Sachio that kids are great because they make you forget what a terrible person you are but that it’s just the ultimate act of indulgence, basking in adoration you know you don’t deserve. Sachio frequently reminds people that he’s no good, almost making it their own fault that he’s hurt them through his constant need for external validation and thinly disguised insecurity. Sachio’s personal tragedy is that his attempts at self-deception largely fail, he knows exactly what he is but that only makes it worse.

The Long Excuse, such as it is, is the title of Sachio’s autobiographical story of grief and an attempt to explain all of this through a process of self discovery and acceptance. Though appearing indifferent to his wife’s death, Sachio’s reaction is one informed by his ongoing self delusions in which he tries to convince himself to ignore the issue and attempt to simply forget about it and move on. Yoichi, by contrast, feels differently – he can’t let his wife go and wants to keep her alive by talking about her all the time but his bighearted grief is too much for his sensitive son who has more than a little in common with Sachio and would rather hit the pause button to come back to this later. The best way out is always through, however difficult and painful it may turn out to be. Making The Long Excuse is Sachio’s way of explaining himself and learning to reconcile the person he is with the one he would like to be, and even if he’s still talking to himself he’s at least moving in the right direction.


The Long Excuse was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

still walkingLife is full of choices, but the one thing you can’t choose is your family. Like it or not you’re stuck with them for life and even if you decide you want nothing to do with them ever again, they’ll still be hanging round in the back of your mind for evermore. Koreeda swings the camera back around the fulcrum of Japanese society for this dissection of the fault lines and earthquake zones rubbing up against this very ordinary family.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that some kind of celebration is about to take place at the beginning of Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Aruitemo Aruitemo) yet the event that is about to bring scattered friends and family members back home is of a more somber nature. As the matriarch Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) peels vegetables with her daughter Chinami (YOU) she seems excited at the prospect of getting the family back together again yet melancholic and perhaps a little nervous.

Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is taking the train in with his new wife and stepson. He urges Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) that they should make their excuses and leave in time for the last train but she feels obliged to stay over. It’s clear Ryota is not looking forward to a reunion with his family and also has some current worries over his working situation which are weighing on his mind and which he definitely does not want anyone in the family to find out about.

Ryota has a particularly strained relationship with his difficult doctor father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) who doted on his oldest son, Junpei, drowned at sea whilst saving the life of a little boy. Increasingly grumpy that he has no heir for his medical practice, Kyohei refuses to recognise Ryota as a grown man or accept his work as an art restorer as a “real” occupation. Tensions in the family are further brought out by the mild disapproval over Ryota’s choice of wife who was previously married and then widowed and has a young son by her first husband. Toshiko for one still harbours an old fashioned stigma towards second marriages and thinks Ryota could have done better than “buying second hand”. Though seemingly accepting of her new daughter-in-law and grandson, she perhaps treats them a little more like guests than fully fledged members of the family.

Set over the course of two days, Still Walking takes on a sense of Chekovian wit and melancholy as it paints a naturalistic picture of an ordinary family with all of the petty cruelties and indignation that involves. The deceased son, Junpei, has become a virtual saint, forever bathed in golden light by his grieving parents while Ryota remains very much alive yet pushed into the shadows. Feeling himself to raise only feelings of disappointment in his family, he adopts a truculent, defensive air which sees him unwilling to engage leaving the bulk of the work for his new wife who is eager to please her in-laws despite their frequent tactlessness in dealing with herself and her son.

Of course, Ryota and his father aren’t so different at all – both gruff, defensive, grumpy. Kyohei is a difficult man sinking into a miserable old age where he can no longer busy himself with the role which has given his life meaning, that of a respected small town doctor. When bubbly younger sister Chinami mentions having seen a newspaper report which referred to painting restorers as “art doctors”, neither man is very happy with being linked with the other yet there is a certain commonality between them that oddly forces them apart rather than ties them together.

Toshiko by contrast is the long suffering yet largely silent housewife whose maternal grief is the force which now defines her. Seemingly sweet and kind on the outside, there’s a tough core in the middle which gives way to some decidedly biting remarks lightly peppering the atmosphere with ancient resentments. Perhaps feeling a strange sort of kinship with the mystery guest-cum-kicking-boy-of-the-day – Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved but has not made good on his investment as he’s turned into a slobbish and overweight 25 year old child who can’t seem to settle on one proper career, Ryota asks why his mother insists on inviting him every year knowing how painful it must be for him to come. Toshiko coldly replies that that’s exactly the reason she intends to keep making him visit, she feels wretched inside 24/7 so for one day every year she makes someone else feel dreadful too – will anyone blame her for that?

Grief and loss play a heavy part here, not only of the literal kind, but in the feeling of time wasted and the disappearing moments which can never be recaptured. Chinami’s son and daughter team up with Ryota’s stepson Atsushi to provide a melancholic mirror of the the three Yokoyama children playing in the same fields and staring at the same fleeting flowers as their forebears did years before. Time is always passing, you think there will always be another opportunity for saying something or other, forging a connection or new memory but soon enough the sand in the glass runs through. As Ryota notes, it’s always a little later than you think but you can’t see it until it’s already too late.

Dense with naturalistic detail, Still Walking is a warm if sad look at one ordinary family dealing with the aftermath of tragedy yet offers its own comments on the nature of human connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and between the living and the dead. A timely reminder of the transience of all things, Koreeda’s most straightforward take on the family drama proves a both profound and moving experience which only deepens with repeated viewing.


I rewatched this recently at an ICA members’ screening where it screened on 35mm but the print actually had an intermission built into it even though the film isn’t all that long – strange experience!

Still Walking is available on DVD and VOD in the UK from New Wave Films and was also released on blu-ray in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.

The film’s Japanese title Aruitemo Aruitemo is taken from the song made famous by Ayumi Ishida – Blue Light Yokohama which turns out to have a surprising significance within the film: