Having just written about A Christmas Tale, I follow up a long, slow foreign film about the interpersonal dynamics at a big family gathering, with a long, slow foreign film about the interpersonal dynamics at a big family gathering.
Still Walking isn’t quite as long as A Christmas Tale (a bit under two hours), it’s Japanese instead of French, and it doesn’t have the slight elements of farce or exaggeration that A Christmas Tale does.
If anything it’s even slower and more uneventful than A Christmas Tale, though there’s plenty going on psychologically. In its way it’s even farther from a conventional American movie than is A Christmas Tale. In a conventional American movie—even an intelligent, highbrow one—the psychological issues would be spelled out a bit more clearly, with the even bigger difference being that these underlying issues would boil up and create one or more dramatic scenes where something big happens, something is settled.
But Still Walking drifts along, letting you gradually get more insight into this family, with no sudden explosion of violence, no shouting match, no defiant declaration, no breakdown into tears, no realization from all concerned that they need to love each other and appreciate each other and improve their relationships moving forward. Always just more drifting. The most maddening thing being—as it can easily be in real life with certain personality types, certain families—how little they communicate directly about the things that are most troubling them.
A Japanese family gets together every year on the anniversary of their oldest son’s death. The son had died—I think as a young adult maybe 18-22, though I don’t recall the age being specified—while rescuing someone who was drowning.
The patriarch of the family is a recently retired physician who ran a local clinic. He is a taciturn man who emerges for meals but at least half the rest of the time prefers to be off by himself and not bother with his family. He makes no secret of the fact that his attitude toward his two remaining children (one son, one daughter, now adults) can never be what it was toward his dead son, his “heir.” He’s clearly disappointed in his remaining son for not being as conventionally successful as he should be (and as his dead son surely would have been), and just puts up with his daughter.
The mother is a housewife, but not a stereotypically submissive Asian woman. She gives as good as she gets with her husband. But she’s not particularly deep, mostly just judging people according to the popular, traditional standards prevalent in her culture.
The daughter is angling for an invitation to move back home, presumably for financial reasons, bringing her husband and kids with her, and the mother especially is deftly avoiding the subject. The daughter’s husband is on his best behavior around his in-laws.
The son would rather be pretty much anywhere than here. He comes every year purely out of familial duty. The tension is especially thick between him and his father. He has brought along his new wife, a widow with a child. She is unfailingly proper and friendly with her in-laws, whatever the provocation. The parents seem to be OK with her as an individual, but make some cutting remarks about her status as a widow with a kid, the message being basically that the fact that that’s the best their son could do is another indication he’s a failure.
Everyone is very mindful of all the social protocols about showing the proper respect and such—neighbors bow to each other on the street, people compliment things they don’t like, people express agreement with things they don’t agree with, etc. The parents exercise a certain prerogative of age whereby they can be rude and insulting in certain ways, but the younger family members may not reciprocate.
As I say, it’s not like things build and come to a head. More like they build and everyone bites their tongue and nothing comes to a head.
Possibly the most intense scene, in fact, is one of the few scenes that is not limited to just the members of this family. Every year for this death anniversary, they invite the person whose life their son saved. He comes by with cakes, and spends an hour or however long making small talk with them and humiliatingly assuring them over and over what a hero their dead son was and how much better it would be if he (the rescued guy) had died and their son had lived.
He’s as nervous and uncomfortable about it all as one would expect, but the family keeps him on the spot to watch him squirm—except the surviving son, who’s disgusted by the whole performance.
After their guest leaves, they make fun of his looks (he’s chubby), his lack of success (he’s unemployed), and his general schmuckness (generally speaking, he’s a schmuck). The son retorts that they ought to stop torturing the guy by inviting him and making him go through this every year.
The mother responds that he’s performing precisely his designated function by coming. Her son died, and there’s no one to blame it on and hate, so once a year they can let some of their unfocused ill will and pain out on this guy and get some satisfaction out of his suffering.
Which is not unlike what they’re doing in a lesser way with their own kids. Like the guest, they come each year and take it, out of a sense of duty.
I admit there’s a small part of me that admires the politeness and propriety of this lifestyle, the way strangers and acquaintances treat each other, especially elders, with respect. But on balance there’s no question that people’s obsession with doing and saying what custom dictates instead of being genuine is oppressive and unhealthy.
The main thing I take away from something like this is how sad it is that people so close to each other have so little ability to simply communicate directly and openly with each other. Any pain, any conflict, is buried within, only sputtering to the service with occasional snide remarks and passive aggressive putdowns. It’s a depressing way to live.
As for Still Walking itself, to some extent it grew on me, and the movie taken as a whole probably reached me a little more deeply than did A Christmas Tale. But by the same token, this was even a little slower and duller and harder to sit through. There’s some reward to opening yourself up to this movie and really feeling what’s going on in this family, but it takes plenty of patience.