What's remarkable about Still Walking, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's seventh feature film and one every bit as sensitive as his previous triumphs After Life (1998) and Nobody Knows (2004), is that the familiar comes across as fresh. Despite recycling potential clichés — the grouchy elderly father, the disenfranchised second son — Kore-eda imbues the story with such specificity, tactility and humanity that yet another movie about a dysfunctional family reunion becomes a cinematic tone poem.
Though the director cites the work of Japanese master Mikio Naruse as a reference for the visual geography of his film, the repeated shot of a train passing in the distance immediately recalls Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 classic Tokyo Story. There are other similarities to Ozu in this Yokohama Story, such as the static, carefully composed shots of a person or a flower arrangement and the barely suppressed family tensions.
And yet there are subversions, as well. Inspired by the death of his parents, Kore-eda crafts the Yokoyama family elders as stubborn, petty, and harsh — far from an Ozu-esque portrait of an older generation readily accepting its fate. Patriarch Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) is an embittered retiree who reads the newspaper at the dinner table, only to inject an occasional sidelong insult under his breath. Grandma Toshiko (Kirin Kiki, superb in every frame) isn't any softer. Her passive-aggressive cruel streak — initially cute while she grates radishes during the film's opening scene — grows darker and festers, eventually providing the film with its biggest maleficent jolt: "I'm not cruel," she tells her son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the unfortunate adult child at the center of this bubbling-over family conflict. "It's normal."
The central source of the Yokoyamas' internal combustion — and the reason for their gathering — is the loss of the eldest son, Junpei, who died fifteen years earlier. With Ryota struggling to find work in painting restoration, there's little he can do to fulfill his parents' expectations of their dead son. He has also married a widow, which is a source of thinly veiled ridicule by his parents. (One typical assault: "A divorcée is better than a widow; at least it's voluntary.") Older sister Chinami (portrayed by the delightfully chirpy-voiced Japanese cult figure YOU) has survived better, with two rowdy kids and a happy-go-lucky husband who sells mobile homes.
Alternating between comic cacophony and the hushed stillness of regret, the film bristles with a sublime and loaded banality: close-ups of succulent, snapping fried corn tempura evoke nostalgia for the family's better moments; broken bathroom tiles lying at the edge of the tub convey neglect, responsibility and promises not kept; and images and sounds of children playing, just in and outside of the frame, suggest, without heavy-handedness, lost innocence.
Kore-eda's world often extends beyond what is obviously center stage, never losing sight of those on the fringes. Ryota's wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), braves the day with a smile (mostly), and her pensive ten-year-old son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), provides some effective parallels: As Atsushi grapples with the loss of his father, so do Ryota and his family mourn Junpei's death. The comparable grief climaxes, in a way — though "crests" might be a better word for this languorously paced film — in the form of a visiting yellow butterfly. If the symbol sounds overly romanticized, it's not; instead, it's just one more delicate, simple detail in this delicate, deceptively simple film.