The spirit of the great Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Autumn) lives in Still Walking, an exquisite new Japanese domestic drama by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, After Life). As much a tribute to Ozu as Hsiao-hsien Hou's 2003 masterpiece Café Lumiere, Kore-eda's movie pivots on a bittersweet family reunion commemorating the death of the eldest son Junpei, who died 15 years earlier in a freak accident while trying to save a drowning child.
Nobody seems particularly happy about this annual ritual. Sole surviving son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) still harbors a grudge against his steely old man (Yoshio Harada) for not making a secret of his preference for the dead Junpei. While Mom (Kirin Kiki) tries to make peace between the resentful Ryota and his dad, kid sister Chinami (You) is making none-too-subtle hints about moving her family into her parents' spacious digs. It's an emotionally messy situation fraught with issues both colossal and mundane, but Kore-eda wisely doesn't play up the melodrama.
Like Ozu, he prefers addressing the more quotidian aspects of his characters' lives: the preparation of meals, children playing in the backyard, the fuss made over a reluctant houseguest. Kore-eda and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki stop short of anthropomorphizing the Yokohama home, yet the rooms practically vibrate with the energy force of an unseen presence. Junpei? Or maybe it's simply the residue of a lifetime's worth of memories aching to be released. The naturalistic performances are as perfectly calibrated as Kore-eda's rigorous mise-en-scene, and it's almost a surprise to realize just how moved you are at the film's quietly devastating conclusion. Still Walking earns its tears honestly, and without any bogus sentimentality or coy manipulation.