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Friday, June 27, 2008
A subtle take on family life
Family drama is the default setting of serious Japanese cinema. No matter what genre first brings Japanese directors fame or fortune, be it Sci Fi/fantasy, yakuza epics or horror, they often end up making a family drama, especially if they want to establish their auteurist credentials. The Western used to play a similar role in Hollywood as the basic, return-to-roots American film genre.
One recent case in point is Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who won a devoted fan following abroad for his original, deeply creepy horror films, beginning with his 1997 breakthrough "Cure." He has gotten his best reviews in years, though, as well as a coveted invitation to the Cannes Film Festival's Critics Week section, for "Tokyo Sonata," a drama about a dysfunctional family, that features no ghosts whatsoever.
Another is Hirokazu Kore'eda, whose first big international success was "Wonderful Life" (English title: "After Life") in 1999, a fantasy set in a way station for the recently dead. He also won numerous kudos here and abroad for 2004's "Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)," a harrowing drama about children trying to survive after being abandoned by their mother. A family drama of sorts, but not the type that Yasujiro Ozu — the ultimate Japanese master of the form — would have made.
Kore'eda's latest film, "Aruitemo Aruitemo (Still Walking)," is more Ozuesque, though not in any way a homage. Instead, he has set himself a tough, but intriguing challenge of the sort familiar from his earlier films: Depict the inner life of a family while limiting the story to 24 hours and keeping the dialogue and action as naturalistic as possible.
Dramas with a tight time frame are usually premised on a vital — even life-or-death — task that must be completed before the time is up. One popular example is the Fox TV series "24," which unfolds minute by real-time minute, as the members of a counterterrorism unit try to foil a terrorist plot.
Kore'eda takes quite a different tack in telling the story of a middle-aged brother and sister and their families visiting their aged parents, a situation entirely mundane. Their reason for gathering, however, is not — they are commemorating the death of the couple's oldest son, Junpei, who drowned 15 years earlier when rescuing a boy from the nearby sea.
The story, as is often the case in Japanese family dramas, revolves around intergenerational strife. The retired physician father, Shohei (Yoshio Harada), still mourns Junpei, a shining youth and appointed heir to his clinic, while belittling his surviving son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), an out-of-work art restorer, whom he considers a second-rater.
Instead of highlighting this conflict with the loud confrontations of TV drama, Kore'eda subsumes it into the realistic bustle and chatter of a family gathering. The film begins with Ryota's salt-of-the-Earth mother, Toshiko (Kiki Kirin), cooking up a storm with her flaky daughter, Chinami (You), while Chinami's amiable car-salesman husband (Kazuya Takahashi) plays with their two cute kids.
Then Ryota arrives, reluctantly, with his nervous new wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), and her son from a previous marriage, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), a bright, observant boy. This trio fits in awkwardly with the familial goings-on, especially when it becomes obvious that Shohei wants as little as possible to do with Ryota — and the whole scene of chatting, cooking women and noisy, rambunctious children. He poses as the busy medical man, when all he is doing is hiding in his now unused office.
Kore'eda, who wrote an original novel on which the script is based, shows us the comedy in the situation, with veterans Yoshio Harada and Kiki Kirin supplying most of the laughs as the perpetually bickering elderly couple. He is more interested, however, in exposing the fault lines in the principal relationships — and how they suddenly crack under the pressure of forced conviviality after long separations.
Ozu did something similar in his masterpiece "Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)" (1953), in which an elderly couple visiting their adult children in Tokyo encounter coldness and indifference behind the welcoming smiles and solicitous words. Ozu and his collaborators, however, wrote dialogue as stylized as haiku, despite its naturalistic surface, while working on a wider canvas and aiming for precise emotional effects. (Certain scenes in "Tokyo Monogatari" can still make me cry rivulets, though I have seem them more than a dozen times.)
Kore'eda, who began his career making TV documentaries, writes dialogue that could have been transcribed from a tape recorder at an ordinary family get-together, while scrupulously avoiding audience cues to pull out the hankies. Instead he produces moments of what might be called heightened awareness — when a key phrase or exchange makes obvious what had been hidden or implied, like firecrackers going off with a flash and a bang.
By the end we see that however long resentments seethe or regrets fester, they soften with time, while their perpetrators — Shohei being the prime one — are not monsters, but fallible, even lovable, human beings.
"Aruitemo Aruitemo" was submitted to Cannes but not selected, perhaps because it's too much on the quiet, diffuse side, not enough on the provocative side — which Kore'eda's previous Cannes competition entry, "Dare mo Shiranai," certainly was. For me, however, the film, like all of Kore'eda's better work, sank in deeper on a second viewing, because I was paying less attention to the background noise and more to the high, hard notes of family discourse (or rather discord) that strangers may downplay or miss but pierce the targets straight through.
The title — and the film — get it right: No matter how much time and space you put between yourself and the past, the ancient family dramas never really end. Until all the players leave the stage, that is.