For the miniaturist, the labored observation of detail is essential to unlocking the grandest secrets of humanity. Teal tiles in careful array on the bathroom floor; the patter of corn tossed up and down; the bronze weave of a precious robe packed away for years – such trivia are burdened with the weight of repressed anger, unexpressed resentment, and even, occasion- ally, accidental tenderness.
If this sounds foolish or unappealing, “Still Walking” is not for you. Hirokazu Koreeda’s treatment of family dysfunction does not immediately engage the senses. His technique relies instead on delicate collage, a kind of pains- taking watercolor notion of drama that does not find virtue in hysteria, but in realism so carefully modulated it’s almost less vibrant than real life.
In “Still Walking” three generations of the Yokoyama family reunite on the anniversary of the death of their eldest son for some food and passive aggression. Our intrepid narrator is Ryo (Hiroshi Abe), an out of luck restorer of paintings who has just married a widowed single mom, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa). The following events unfold over a twenty-four hour period, in a haphazard sequence of domestic trifles.
For the most part, the film is a quiet success. Ostensibly in a naturalistic mode, the movie is almost unbearably elliptical, withholding far more than it reveals. But occasionally, Koreeda cannot resist inserting obvious signposts of intention, which disrupt what is otherwise a model of exquisite calibration. The dialogue, performed discursively, flitting from one minor concern to another, often comments on itself, or on some camera detail previously shown, as if Koreeda is nervous that the viewer will not be able to piece the meaning together without his help. After Ryo is shown tugging at a handrail in the bathroom, a few minutes later, his mother comments that his father fell in the bathroom and the rail had to be installed. This sounds less offensive than it is, but in a movie of such profound nuance, these kinds of missteps are that much more noticeable.
But of course, there’s no audience for functional family film: for one reason or another, everyone in the Yokoyama family is profoundly miserable, or if not miserable, boorishly unaware. The father (Yoshio Harada) is a retired doctor who is brusquely rude to everyone around him, including Ryo, who he views as inadequate replacement for his dead heir. His wife (Kirin Kiki) is acidly wrathful, though under the veneer of an arid hospitality. Even Satsuki (Hotaru Nomoto), Yukari’s young son, is dubbed “the unsmiling prince” (self-explanatory) and in the words of Yukari, “treated like a guest when he should be treated like family” by his adoptive grand- parents.
As in “Babette’s Feast,” food in “Still Walking” is the symbolic vehicle through which deeper emotions are expressed. Unlike “Babette’s Feast,” no release is ever allowed. Instead, food acts to deflect feeling, and fill awkward silence – to change the subject without ever having to acknowledge that such a transition is necessary. The movie opens on a mundane conversation about the peeling of radishes, during which we see four hands peeling radishes. This kind of attention continues, so that every meal that is prepared involves at least four or five shots of a bowl of food filling the screen. Later, in a beautifully conducted scene around the dinner table, we see a meticulously choreographed exchange of food, consideration, and unspoken emotion: after Satsuki complains about some dish, his grandfather eats it for him, and his grandmother gives him some of her own food.
In this manner, the compulsive cruelties and compensatory kindnesses that make up the inexpressible tapestry of family relation are portrayed. “Still Walking” is the ultimate microscopic movie, imbued with the fervent sense that the world exists only and utterly in the particular.