The English language translation of Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008) as “Still Walking” offers a subtle and incisive duality of meaning that is fitting for a filmmaker whose narratives are imbued with gentle multitudes of (mis)understanding. The more literal meaning, filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has said, would be “that one continues walking.”1 In this instance, the film’s key themes of grief, regret and recompense as persistent journeys, rather than obstacles with clear resolutions, befit the continuous implication in the title. Conversely, “Still”, in the English language, suggests stasis within a fluid movement – though I would argue that movement in Koreeda’s films is not always equal to a physical action. Rather, he offers us a glimpse into a complex tapestry of continuous humanist (e)motions. “Still Walking”, then, is a continuous mode of being as well as a framework of paradox that identifies emotional stasis within the continuity of familial relationships.
Still Walking begins in motion, bang in the middle of a conversation between mother and daughter. “Radishes are genius,” says Toshiko Yokoyama (Kirin Kiki), the matriarch of the family. “How about potatoes?” her daughter Chinami (You) asks. “With potatoes, it’s up to the cook,” Toshiko retorts. The two women stand over a kitchen sink, peeling root vegetables. Chinami only pretends to be interested in the motion of cooking, her motive is to engage her mother in conversation. In Japan, the vegetables they peel – a daikon radish and a carrot – are also used as phallic offerings to the gods of fertility. The inherent symbolic meaning attached to foods like these in Japan enables characters in Koreeda’s estranged or dysfunctional families to broach painful and philosophical issues with relative ease. Here, in just under a minute of screen time, Koreeda has set in motion a key narrative contemplation – and a theme he will return to in his 2013 film, Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son, 2013) – nature vs. nurture.
Kyohei Yokoyama (Yoshio Harada), the patriarch of the family, is also introduced in motion; he is walking, with no destination or purpose other than engaging in micro-social situations that reiterate (or reinstate) his respected post as a doctor, even though he is retired. In both instances, the older generation is shown as engaged in motion but distanced from emotion. Later, we learn, this is because of the prematurely interrupted life (motion) of their eldest son, Junpei, who died saving another boy. The two sons in this family, Junpei and Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) are constantly compared, their merits weighed up like root vegetables, vying for the role of substance and nutrition in a hotchpotch familial meal. The film contemplates Junpei thus: model phallus from birth and tillage radish in death. Koreeda’s metaphor requires knowledge of the radish’s large taproot, that leaves behind a cavity in the soil, increasing aeration and water infiltration to increase root depth for future crops, of, for example, potatoes. Such is his subtlety that he suggests, through vegetables, that one is clever enough to create a path for its successor, the other more sensitive and requiring greater care in cultivation. Ryota, our aligning protagonist, is the potato of this story.
The Yokoyama family have gathered on the anniversary of their son’s death. The gathering is a forced reunion, designed to simmer like a hotpot, each ingredient drowned yet softened by the bitter broth of a home missing a key ingredient. To further sour things, the family invite the boy he saved to have a drink with them, every year, not despite but because of the awful nature of the encounter. Toshiko remarks that she feels awful, so she will make him feel awful, too. Grief is not a conflict for narrative resolution in Still Walking, it is an eternal process, but it causes stasis, all the same. Fluidity exists in the persistence of the past upon the present, but it is also the root cause of the central and emotionally stunted relationship between father and surviving son.
While Toshiko is busy tending to the Butsudan (a small shrine where they can pay respect to Junpei, in their home), her husband takes a shining to Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), Ryota’s new son, through re-marriage. The split in focus on death and life hints at contemporary Japanese culture’s complex relationship with Zen Buddhism. Whether the deceased undergo a transformation after death is somewhat interpretative, but rebirth is not in its teachings. As such, the lack of clarity over what might become of one’s soul is in sync with the paradox between temporal fluidity and emotional stasis that drives the narrative forward whilst preventing it from reaching any resolute conclusion. That Koreeda made the film immediately following his own mother’s death, makes this paradox even more poignant, “that’s what inspired me to make this movie, along with all the things I couldn’t do or didn’t do while she was alive and the regrets that I have about that.”2
Reflecting on the impossible scenario of what one could or could not do in the past is something Koreeda will revisit in future films, including (at the time of writing) his most recent family drama, Umi yori mo mada fukaku (After the Storm, 2016). An unofficial sequel to Still Walking, After the Storm re-unites actress Kirin Kiki with actor Hiroshi Abe as mother and son. Their names are literally one character added, or altered, from this film; in romaji (the representation of Japanese characters in the western, 26-letter alphabet) Ryota has become Ryôta, and Toshiko is now Yoshiko. The almost-ness is deliberate; the similarity of their characters, situations and interactions are, much like the English translation of this film’s title, both comprehensively familiar and yet somehow obfuscating. It is almost as if the essence of Still Walking, even after the film has finished, continues in (e)motion. Yoshiko, in After the Storm, comments clearly on this continued nature of simmering familial relationships, “A stew needs time for the flavours to sink in: so do people.” While Koreeda’s characters and themes continue in (e)motion, their depth of meaning intensifying throughout his oeuvre, Still Walking offers a delicious taster.
Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking, 2008 Japan 110 mins)
Prod co: Bandai Visual Company Prod: Yoshihiro Kato, Satoshi Kôno, Hijiri Taguchi, Masahiro Yasuda Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda Phot: Yutaka Yamazaki Ed: Hirokazu Koreeda Art Dir: Toshihiro Isomi, Keiko Mitsumatsu Mus: Gontiti
Cast: Hiroshi Abe, You, Yui Natsukawa, Kirin Kiki, Kazuya Takahashi, Yoshio Harada