“Still Walking” (2008) with your resentments
17 September 2011
For a couple of weeks now I’ve been in close contact with a former grad student who’s been looking for a salaried academic job for five years. Such a long time on the academic job market isn’t uncommon anymore, but it seems worse to her because last winter she finally signed a contract for a good job, only to have the university renege on the contract (they claimed statewide budget cuts). No wonder she’s now full of a terrible bundle of resentment, defensiveness, and misplaced shame. No wonder she has a hard time working up the energy to start applying all over again.
The problem she’s facing is that all those resentments bubble up to the surface and inflect her interviews. When one interviewer asked her recently about how her book manuscript was coming along, she blurted out, “I’ve been adjuncting for up to six classes a semester taught at three universities spread out over 110 miles! Sometimes I drive four hours a day just to get to and from class!” Another interviewer asked why she’d want a job at his third-tier school in Nebraska, and she said, “In this job market? you can’t seriously be asking me that question!” These are, of course, not the “right” answers. Even though we all learned at some point to maintain perfect composure and patience during interviews, she’s suffered such long-term trauma about work that she’s lost that mask—and losing it has caused her to suffer even more a sense of failure and frustration. Every single conversation brings up all that bile, to her detriment.
Thus, long-term trauma has thus been on my mind lately—and we know from our Psych 101 classes that it begins with the family, which is where it appears in the beautiful, acidic, funny film Still Walking (Aruitemo, Aruitemo), easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda takes as his subject the gathering together of two 40-something siblings and their families at the home of their aging parents, a gathering oriented around the commemoration of the siblings’ beloved oldest brother’s death a dozen years earlier.
What seems at first glance to be mundane is fraught with meaning. The siblings’ 70ish mother (Kirin Kiki) cooks constantly and somewhat frantically, varying her conversation between cheerful gossip and firm instructions about recipe preparation, with occasional dips into disapproval and superstition. The father, a retired doctor (Yoshio Harada), locks himself in his examination room with undisguised crankiness. Their grown daughter (You) has already arrived with her cheerful RV-selling husband and their rambunctious and good-hearted children, all of whom behave like they’re ready to appear in a sitcom about an ideal family.
They are waiting for the arrival of their second son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who’s not ready for any sitcom at all. There’s a list of the ways Ryo is not looking forward to this visit. First, his job as an art restorer is so tenuous that he spends most of his time on the phone seeking out new work; there is no way he’s going to tell his parents that he’s struggling to pay the bills. Let’s not even talk about the fact that he’s not a doctor like his father, a longstanding source of serious friction. Second, he has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son from her first marriage, an act that his mother pronounces unlucky. Why couldn’t he have married a divorcée, they mutter when he’s not around. And finally–most important, if you ask Ryo–he’s always going to be the second son, second in their love forever, always behind his long-dead brother. In other words, this is a visit like every other family visit: everyone walks around with their nerves on full alert, like very long cat’s whiskers on a hair-trigger response system.
And so they begin the frantic attempt to tick away the hours. Aside from the ritualistic trip to the cemetery there’s not much to do, so they spend it eating, eating, eating. They talk about eating, and in between they say unconsidered things to one another. Ryo’s father reluctantly emerges from his room for dinner, only to offend Ryo’s eager-to-please wife. Meanwhile, Ryo is so wrapped up with his own resentments that he fails to notice that his parents are treating his adopted son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), so formally that he may as well be a stranger.
Beautiful, weird, chilling, funny, cringe-making–the Yokoyamas might as well be your family. Roger Ebert calls Kore-eda one of the finest living directors in the world and the true heir to Yasujirō Ozu, who developed such eloquent, complex views of human relations. Me? I’m going to hunt down every single one of Kore-eda’s films on my path to deciding whether I agree.