Pain and Nourishment: Kirin Kiki in Still Walking

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking is an exquisitely lived-in portrayal of family life. It takes place largely over the course of one day, at the home of the aging Yokoyamas, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) and Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), as they welcome visiting children and grandchildren. The film is more interested in capturing the beauty of familial interaction and subtle human behavior than imposing a narrative. There is an overall dramatic design, which becomes clearer as the film moves gracefully along, but for the first half hour or so, we feel as though we’re simply eavesdropping on people’s lives. A director can achieve this authenticity only with the right performances, and Still Walking would be unthinkable without Kiki, a veteran Japanese actor who imbues each of her scenes with a remarkable spontaneity and sense of her character’s history. We can read the joys and sadnesses of an entire life in her every smile, grimace, and fidget.

Though the Blue Ribbon Award Kiki received for Still Walking in 2008, when the film was released, was for best supporting actress, she’s clearly the lead character—the family’s heart and the film’s focus. Even within wide, master shot compositions featuring multiple characters, she’s often centrally framed. Kore-eda conceived Still Walking as a tribute to his own mother, who had recently died after a long illness. “After my mother’s death, I was left with feeling that I wasn’t there in time; that you’re never there in time. I was filled with a strong, deep regret. That was the basis for the film,” the director said in 2008. What’s amazing is that, despite the melancholy that drove the production, so much of the film is utterly delightful, gliding along on the rhythms of comfortable family rapport. Kiki, sixty-five when she made the film, is especially amusing in her kitchen scenes.

Still Walking is as much about sustenance as it is about love, regret, and growing old, so it makes sense that food is integral to it. It opens with a close-up on Kiki’s aging but not yet wizened hand scraping a carrot skin with a knife as she prepares for an elaborate lunch that will be the culmination of the film’s first half. We’ll also see her deveining shrimp, mashing potatoes, slicing onions, salting edamame, and fashioning her culinary pièce de résistance, corn tempura. Toshiko’s hustle-bustle at the stove is a perfect, action-oriented introduction to a no-nonsense character. Though she seems to enjoy cooking (Kiki often interjects playful smiles and eye rolls at unexpected moments), Toshiko is driven in the kitchen. And Kiki is so at ease she seems to have made these dishes, based on Kore-eda’s mother’s recipes, many times. When frying the tempura, she dodges flying crackles of hot oil like a pro. It’s in moments like these—when an actor is just navigating her environment—that a movie’s artifice dissolves away and we’re left watching real, vivid motion.

As the film progresses, we come to realize that the occasion for the family get-together is the annual observance of the long-ago death of one of Toshiko and Kyohei’s children: Junpei, who drowned saving the life of another young man. Kiki is almost unbearably touching in her portrayal of a woman who has been in mourning for decades, yet she’s without an ounce of sentiment. She doesn’t seem to be acting grief but living it. The delicacy with which she places food at her son’s altar (which Kore-eda often places in the background or at the side of a composition, to remind viewers that the family is constantly affected by this member’s absence) and the methodical love with which she pours cooling water on his grave during a cemetery visit convince us that she’s been observing these customs for years.

Still Walking is about life’s nearly constant negotiation between pleasure and pain. In one moment, sorrow over her son’s death will seem to have overtaken Toshiko, and in the next she’ll be giddily reminiscing about something. Late in the film, after much of the extended family has gone home, Toshiko and Kyohei share a dinner of leftovers with their son Ryota and his wife and stepson. Toshiko momentarily rekindles a youthful spark when she recalls and plays a favorite record from her early days of marriage. The grumpy Kyohei tries to belittle it, but she won’t allow it. For her, this corny pop song isn’t even a guilty pleasure—it’s just one of life’s joys. Watch how Kiki briefly clutches the record to her chest, and how she seems to be visibly transported to some secret past as the tune drifts across the room.

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