There is music in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking that arises from the home itself. It sounds like eddies of conversation around a kitchen counter, as persistent as the crackle of frying oil. It sounds like the patter, so similar to rainfall, of corn kernels tossed in a basket. (It sounds like the line “How many years did you watch me do this?”) Amid this domestic drift, or perhaps atop it like a cherry, there’s also a real song, one that you might encounter elsewhere—Ayumi Ishida’s “Blue Light Yokohama,” the lyrics of which lend the film its title. But despite such a distinct reference, “Blue Light Yokohama” is largely absent from the movie itself. For most of the film it is not sung, not spoken about, and—once broached—not returned to; for most of the film, it’s tucked away in a drawer.
What does it mean for a central detail to be so securely cached? And where, while “Blue Light Yokohama” is hidden in that drawer, might we find a hint?
The song is eventually unearthed by Toshiko Yokoyama, who is at once matriarch, maid, and conductor of memorial proceedings, a yearly undertaking that has brought the two younger Yokoyama generations—Ryota and Chinami, brother and sister, along with their spouses and children—on a quiet day trip to Grandma Toshiko’s house in seaside Yokohama. (Toshiko’s husband, Kyohei, retired and clinging to his stature as physician, commands the family mythology to the point of nausea, and yet: Grandma’s house.) Missing from the home is Junpei, the eldest son. The memorial is his.
Junpei died twelve years ago, drowning while saving a stranger at a nearby beach. Since then the Yokoyama family has slipped into comforting revisionism. Junpei is remembered as near-perfect, while his faults are assigned to Ryota. Younger than Junpei by several years and yet now older than Junpei ever was, Ryota remains defined primarily against this glowing memory of Junpei: the darling first-born son who, before the accident, was set to follow Kyohei in the family practice. Ryota tries to correct the record. Small frictions arise. While washing a watermelon in the bathroom, Ryota overhears a misattributed story, and calls out to the kitchen, “That wasn’t me. That was Junpei.” He goes unheard. A doctor of the wrong sort, Ryota earns a living restoring faded and damaged artworks, and at lunch tells his father of a similar dilemma from his field: “Restoration, not repair. There was a long dispute about whether to preserve the tomb as is, or to conserve that national treasure, that mural . . .” Meaning: relics can be left exactly as they are from a distance, or engaged with and altered in the process. With every correction, a blemish. This goes unheard, too.
Only after a brief and uncomfortable visit from Yoshio, the man whom Junpei managed to save from the water, does Ryota say plainly what is on his mind. “Stop comparing his life to others,” he says, as the family ridicules Yoshio for his shortcomings. “He’s doing the best he can.” The teasing continues until Ryota adds: “Who knows how Junpei would have turned out if he were still alive.” The room falls silent. Perhaps nobody had thought to ask.
A series of similarly tectonic frictions, which are shifting slowly on the mantle, eventually surface: Why on earth did Ryota marry Yukari, a widowed single mother? Is it noble to have been a doctor if you prove useless when it matters? And beneath it all: how much good, really, is forgiveness? Difficult questions, each left largely unanswered by Kore-eda—in this film, on today of all days, there’s just not enough time to delve. Stories wait to be retold, pictures wait to be taken, Junpei’s grave waits to be cleansed with cool water, and meals, both delivered and lovingly home-cooked, wait to be eaten. And though the larger motions of Still Walking creak with tension, these small details manage to intrude, tenderly concealing the rough edges of conflict like moss between cobble.
Preservation, conservation, friction, tenderness: these, each like a valve, form the film’s beating heart. Where is the song?