Family Ties

By Tim Winterstein


Whenever films are based on true stories, there’s always a little dramatic enhancement to the story. Sometimes it’s to fill in missing details; sometimes it’s in the form of actors and actresses (almost always) more attractive than the real people; sometimes it’s simply to increase the action so people will want to watch it. For most of us, if movies were made about our lives, it might be hard to find even a little drama to increase. As it stands, no one is going to want to make a movie about my life, for example. The day-to-day, the mundane, the details of my life are relatively boring (not that I mind that, most of the time!).

The ability to take regular, everyday events and present them narratively, while avoiding both boredom and sensationalism, is an ability that very few artists have. Admittedly, in the background of Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2008 film (streaming on the Criterion Channel), there is a major, dramatic event, but it’s not an event that we cannot imagine happening. The untimely death of a son and brother is something that could happen to us and maybe has happened to us. The aftermath of that is what Kore-eda explores in a family whose emotional interaction is so true to life that it might as well be a true story.

But the movie doesn’t start with that event. We are thrown into it as we would be if we were just getting to know the family—as, in fact, the woman who marries the remaining son and the man who marries the daughter are thrown into it. So the seemingly unavoidable conflicts resulting from a widow with a young son becoming a part of a new family, or the jealousies and unfulfilled desires of both parents and children, occur naturally within the world of the film. Kore-eda has such a good eye for the subtleties of familial—or simply human—relationships, that the drama comes not from major events, but from life itself.

Much of Still Walking explores territory similar to Kore-eda’s other films. There is a widow trying to find her way as a single, and then remarried, mother (as in Maborosi). There is the son who is a disappointment to both his parents and himself, who seems to have lost his early dreams and ideals (as played by the same actor, Hiroshi Abe, in After the Storm). There is the mother who gets along with good humor, but there is also bitterness and loss that rises and falls within her (also played by the same actress, Kirin Kiki, in After the Storm). There are family ties that are made and broken and mended and created (as in Shoplifters). And as with all three of those movies, Kore-eda never rushes. He’s never in a hurry to move us along by forcing action or artificially introducing dramatic events. He allows the story to unfold so that it feels as if we know this family. And if we don’t know this family, we know or have met every one of the people who inhabit its places.

In the end, we feel the disappointment and regret of Ryota as he looks back on what he never did with and for his parents before they died. “It’s always like that,” he says. “I’m always a little late.” It’s an extension of his father’s disappointment in the fact that neither of his sons followed him into medical practice. It is also a reflection of the human tendency to put things off until it’s too late to do them. 

But we also feel the hopeful inevitability that, for better or worse, we are bound to our families and other people. Some people never seem to escape the shadow of their parents and are stunted by the experience. Others, wounded as they might be, grow strong in that shadow and surpass it. Ryota repeats to his daughter something that his mother used to tell him, and he doesn’t seem to remember who exactly it was who first said it. Even so, the viewer knows that Ryota carries on his connections to his past and to his family. As Yukari says at one point, “Even when they die, people don’t really go away.”

Certainly that could be understood—and it is, in part—in terms of Japanese and Buddhist ancestor worship. But it’s also true, in a more widely human sense, that those family members or other loved ones who die are never really gone. We still might turn to talk to someone with whom we’ve shared a life, even though they’re not there. We might dial a phone number, even when the person to whom it belonged is gone. We might say a longing prayer for the salvation of a person, even if we believe that the outcome is sealed once that person dies. The dead don’t really go away. In a Christian sense, it is true as well: the dead in Christ, who are separated from us, are still alive to Him, who is the Lord of the living and the dead. Blessed be the ties that bind.