Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 After Life stepped into a bureaucratic beyond. His 2001 Distance probed the aftermath of a religious cult's mass suicide. Likewise loosely inspired by fact, Nobody Knows (2004) charted the survival of an abandoning mother's practically feral children in a Tokyo apartment. 2006's Hana was a splashy samurai story albeit one atypically resistant to conventional action.
Despite their shared character nuance, these prior features don't quite prepare one for the very ordinary milieu and domestic dramatics of Still Walking. Kore-eda's latest recalls no less than Ozu in its seemingly casual yet meticulous dissection of a broken family still awkwardly bound if just for one last visit by the onerous traditions and institution of "family" itself. There's no conceptually hooky lure here. Yet Walking is arguably both Kore-eda's finest hour so far, and as emotionally rich a movie experience as 2009 has yet afforded.
One day every summer the entire Yokohama clan assembles to commemorate an eldest son's accidental death 15 years earlier. This duty calls, even if art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) chafes at retired M.D. dad's (Yoshio Harada) obvious disappointment over his career choice, at the insensitivity of his chatterbox mum (Kiri Kirin), and at being eternally compared to a retroactively sainted sibling. Even more so now that Ryo now has a bride (Yui Natsukawa) and son (Shohei Tanaka) eager to please their new in-laws though they're already damned as widow and another man's child.
Not subject to such evaluative harshness is many-foibled sole Yokohama daughter Chinami (Nobody Knows' oblivious, helium-voiced mum You). Simply because she's a girl so dim-bulb husband and running-wild kids get the pass stern grandpa denies prodigal son Ryo and company. Small crises, subtle tensions, the routines of food preparation, and other minutae ghost-drive a narrative whose warm, familiar, pained, touching, and sometimes hilarious progress seldom leaves the small-town parental home interior yet never feels claustrophobic in the least.
There's a whiff of compromise in a coda that feels compelled to spell out the reconciliatory note already hard-won through inference. (Gratuitous sentimentality is a habit Japanese non-genre cinema often finds hard to kick.) Nonetheless, this is Kore-eda's most truly naturalistic, let alone Ozu-like film since his first the comparatively bleak 1995 Maborosi as well as a dysfunctional-family seriocomedy uncommonly beautiful inside and out. It's a quietly funny and insightful two hours capable of inducing one pretty ecstatic afterglow.
STILL WALKING opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.