Family as a fundamental aspect of the melodrama resurfaces yet again in this new film by contemporary Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda. So far whilst researching Indian cinema including popular, art and marginal examples, a common reoccurring thread of family as a wider social metaphor has emerged quite significantly. Though I was aware of how central the family has and continues to be for much of Indian cinema, one can extend this argument out to also include a large part of Asian cinema and in particular the Japanese family melodrama. It has become somewhat of a clique these days especially in Western society to refer to the family as having imploded under the dissolution of post-modernity yet look to the East and Asian cinema including India, Japan and China and it is striking how the idea of family as an institution remains firmly intact, an idea that is fought over regularly and contested in the realms of the melodrama.
Satyajit Ray’s ideological influences were identifiable in the iconic figure of Tagore yet the repeated centrality of family in his films can in many ways be traced to the seminal work of the Italian neo realists. If De Sica was continuous in his attempt to reconstitute family then this was not a culturally specific representation of post war reality. Family is a shared universal ideal and though one could argue foremost of De Sica’s break with the dominant modes of film making, it was the commonality in terms of family and its humanistic virtues that made Ray conclude the necessity of exploring the conflict between cultural traditions and modernity’s undermining of family as an essential cinematic sphere. Ozu, Naruse, Ray, Ghatak, Kurosawa and many of the so called liberal humanist film makers who produced most of their work in the post war era were essentially trading in a similar cultural preoccupation; how the family could be used to confront quotidian dilemmas – the most basic of human ideals including death, birth, gender, age, tradition, society and national identity.
‘Still Walking’ is the work of a real craftsman, a film that humbly returns to the spectre of Ozu with great affection and offers us the often repeated tale of the family in crisis. Hirokazu Kore-eda is perhaps closer in terms of style to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, another Japanese director who also recently returned to the familiar genre trappings of the family melodrama. Many critics have remarked that this may in fact be Hirokazu Kore-eda’s best film to date. I have seen some of his earlier and popular films including ‘Afterlife’, ‘Maborosi’ and ‘Nobody Knows’ but like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, much of his work is now slowly being reappraised in terms of authorial stature. I think with ‘Still Walking’, Hirokazu Kore-eda may finally get the recognition he deserves.
Similarly like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Hideo Nakata, Hirokazu Kore-eda route into film was through television, ‘toiling away on the V-cinema production line’. His interest in observing the subject matter led to a series of documentaries that characterised the early phase of his career. Debuting in 1995 with 'Maborosi', Kore-eda’s first feature was well received at film festivals and outlined a preoccupation with suicide and death, two themes which continue to dominate much of his work. In their book titled ‘New Japanese film’, Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp situate Kore-eda amongst the new vanguard of Japanese directors:
‘Kore-eda suddenly saw himself launched into the limelight, lumped together with a group of fellow Japanese filmmakers that included Makoto Shinozaki, Shinji Aoyama, Nobuhiro Suwa, and the aforementioned Naomi Kawase. All of them arriving with their independently made debut features in the second half of the 1990s, the media and festivals were quick to pronounce these young hopefuls a ‘New Japanese New Wave.'
The commercial and critical success of Kore-eda’s next film ‘After Life’ was the one that mapped out thematic authorial concerns:
‘It is infused with numerous concerns and themes that the director has dealt with in his life and career as a filmmaker, the most central being a fascination with memory, the relationship between past and present, and the documentation or recording of events on camera.’
At first glance, Kore-eda’s latest film does seem like an effortlessly constructed tribute to the cinema of Ozu. Yet this thematic concern with memory can easily be found in the image of the son who we are told tragically drowned whilst saving the life another boy. This connection with the past affects both the aging mother and father in strikingly different ways and the sense of loss lingers profoundly in the family home. The reunion of a family is quite a common narrative device in the melodrama and here it is used to confront death. Kore-eda’s control over the pacing is masterly and none of his characters seem contrived, offering us a moving study of middle class Japanese suburbia. This is a very gentle and warm family melodrama that reminded me of Ray’s ‘Kanchenjungha’ whilst also expressing clearer links to many of Ozu’s best films including ‘Tokyo Story’ whilst the final moments in which the past and present magically collide suggest how inescapable family is to the shared cultural language of most nations. ‘Still walking’ is one of the most richly satisfying cinema experiences I have had in a while and it makes a pleasant feel good alternative to the currently over represented Reitman and Clooney collaboration, ‘Up in the air’.