The three generations who gather together in “Still Walking,” a quiet, stirring film from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, fit uneasily under the same roof. Set in a port city, though largely played out in the tight, boxy confines of a single home, the film turns on a melancholic, at times resentful and seethingly angry 15th-anniversary reunion to mark the death of the eldest son. Grief has brought the scattered family members together and, at least at moments, seems all that they have left in common.
Mr. Kore-eda, who also directed “After Life” and “Nobody Knows,” can have a deceptively simple touch. In “Still Walking,” the story builds through an accretion of details, in shared glances, gestures and conversation. As with the disordered arc of many family gatherings, food is cooked and consumed amid a great deal of small talk, and children laugh loudly and run free through the rooms. The drama, such as it is, enters obliquely, coming to a slow boil in the bitter comments and sharp looks of the surviving son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), and in the oppressive silences of his father, a retired doctor, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada). When Ryota arrives with his wife and stepson at his parents’ home, his father simply grunts, Oh, you’re here.
Here yet not here. Among other things, “Still Walking” is very much about what it means to return to a home that you helped create, animating it with spirit and love (or rage or fear or despair), and then left behind. Like his brother, whose absence fills the house and whose photograph takes unsettling pride of place on an altar, Ryota has become something of a ghost. That’s true for many adult children, who can see their younger selves in every familiar and inviting ancestral nook. Here, though the dead son so fully inhabits the consciousness of his parents — and by extension the house, which in its gentle dilapidation has become a physical manifestation of them — there is little room for anyone else, even other ghosts.
In time, well-tended resentments rise to the surface, as do various hurts. The family’s only daughter, Chinami (played by a monosyllabically named actress, You), hopes to move her son, daughter and cheerfully clueless husband into her parents’ home. Her mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), by far the most surprising character, clearly doesn’t relish this projected home invasion. But she expresses her feelings about the proposed move to Ryota only after Chinami’s family has left. Because Mr. Kore-eda writes realistic characters rather than the self-actualized types you often find in the movies, they rarely express themselves with blunt force and never with perfectly scripted paragraphs detailing every slight. It’s this restraint rather than any change in volume that makes their brief displays of florid emotion so effective.
The elliptical story finds its match in the film’s understated visual style. The compositions are harmoniously balanced, the family often centered against the geometric patterns created by the shoji screens and open doorways. For the most part the camera moves around the house with the characters, though at times Mr. Kore-eda pauses on a domestic still life, lingering over a vase on a table or the tidied-up, finally quiet kitchen. He seems to catch beauty on the fly, as when the three grandchildren, having gone for a walk, reach for some overhanging flowers, their fluttering fingers straining upward. There’s joy in this moment even if these three are also echoes of three other children: Ryota, Chinami and their lost brother.
Against his better judgment, Ryota and his family stay the night. (Chinami, meanwhile, packs up her brood and drives away, fretting over the future.) As Ryota, Mr. Abe, a tall man who often has to duck to avoid smacking his head on entryways, has to play the part of the malcontent. He fills out the role fine, though the character’s sourness and dark looks grow somewhat wearisome. Yet Ryota’s unhappiness is as crucial to the family’s dynamic as his father’s glowering and his mother’s efficient, defensive bustling. This is life as it’s lived, not dreamed. And this is a family bound not only by sorrow, but also by a shared history that emerges in 114 calibrated minutes and ends with a wallop.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda; director of photography, Yutaka Yamazaki; music by Gontiti; production designers, Toshihiro Isomi and Keiko Mitsumatsu; produced by Yoshihiro Kato and Hijiri Taguchi; released by IFC Films. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Hiroshi Abe (Ryota Yokoyama), Yui Natsukawa (Yukari), You (Chinami), Kazuya Takahashi (Nobuo), Shohei Tanaka (Yukari’s son), Kirin Kiki (Toshiko Yokoyama) and Yoshio Harada (Kyohei Yokoyama).