Friday, 18 June 2010

[349] Kore-eda Hirokazu Pt.4: Still Walking: 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'

Here is the fourth part of my long-form essay 'Colliding Truth and Fiction: Subjectivity and Emotion in the Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu', which I am posting up this week. It is about his film Still Walking, which is one of my favourites of this year. You can read the introductory chapter of this piece here, the first chapter, 'Documentary as Structure', here, and the second chapter, 'The Problem of Remembering', here. You can look here for bibliographical information.

Still Walking: 'Fiction With a Documentary Eye'

After exploring the complication of comprehending filmed reality in Without Memory, and showing the boundary between fiction and documentary in After Life, Kore-eda has pursued a distinctly naturalistic aesthetic in the last decade, in dramas such as Nobody Knows and Still Walking. While these two films share a kinship with After Life's location-shot realism, they both move away from that film's high concept, essayistic premise, towards a cinema that is much more implicit in its themes and style.

Still Walking is presented with an observational approach, using almost solely static shots, and featuring a longer than average length of take, with, according to David Bordwell, 375 shots over the course of its 111 minutes (2008). This stylistic choice is interwoven with the content, as it explores the interior spaces of home and family. However, there is a conscious attempt in Kore-eda's work as both writer and director to create an approximation of real life, using the experience gained from his non-fictional work and his more overtly stylised fiction films to craft an aesthetic that is not explicitly factual, yet is engrossingly real: 'fiction, filmed with a documentary eye' (Campbell, 2005).

Kore-eda shapes his drama around a family gathering that occurs over the period of a day, where three generations are found under one roof. The older generation, the mother and father, play host to their son and daughter, and their respective families, on what is over time revealed to be the anniversary of their first child's death. What progresses over the film's runtime is a narrative with a lax structure, that is distinctly different to the three-act paradigm that is to be found in conventional, Hollywood filmmaking. This mode of drama and storytelling is described by writer David Mamet as a succession of conflicts and goals in the following sports analogy:

'What do we wish for in the perfect game? Do we wish for Our Team to take the field and thrash the opposition from the First Moment, rolling up a walkover score at the final gun? No. We wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen, retroactively, to have always tended toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion.' (1998: 8-9)

The events that are considered essential ingredients by Mamet are mostly absent from Kore-eda's films, and this is especially the case with Still Walking. The narrative is structured around the family meals, and conversations between the ensemble cast that flows with a subtle pacing. Instead of emphasising dramatic action, the film achieves an organic feel of development. Unlike the overtly narrated documentaries, or even the roving, handheld gaze of After Life, Still Walking - in both direction and story - strives for a seamless, natural progression. The camera is not a character, it is a porthole into the family's life, and the viewer looks for meaning in a sedimentary fashion. It is interesting to note that, in pursuing this, Kore-eda is harmonising, albeit in a fictional mode, with some of the ideas of American documentary, especially the Direct Cinema movement, which took as its aim

'...capturing reality as it happened... relying on the spontaneous observation of a subject in action. Then letting the story tell itself, find its own form. And afterward, not pulling the continuity all together with a voice of doom narration.' (Junker, 1969)

Of course, Still Walking is fiction; its action and context have been planned and sculpted by Kore-eda and his crew. However, the film consistently works within this style, and it is best exhibited in its opening scenes, where the situation and characters are introduced to the audience.

The first shots of Still Walking are close-ups of the hands of the mother (Toshiko, Kirin Kiki) and daughter (Chinami, You), as they prepare food in the kitchen. Immediately, the viewer is confronted with the film's emphasis on domestic action as opposed to dramatic action. The specific progression of the scene is that of chopping, dicing and peeling, while their dialogue is a subtle mixture of gossip and exposition, carrying a great deal of the film's introductory content as they talk. The mother part sermonises, part rambles about food ('radishes are genius'), while the daughter idly reveals that she won't take any of the advice, as her husband will eat anything. This sequence has a subtle, evocative sort of characterisation, tying the two generations together through their meal preparation, and in the process revealing the daughter's very different approach to home making. Like Sekine from Without Memory, the viewer - here without the crutch of expectations of plot or genre - builds up an awareness of the context by association with the characters, and with the drama that plays out before them.

This opening scene also introduces the family's patriarch, a retired doctor (Kyohei, Yoshio Harada). He appears unannounced and out of shot, with the sound of footsteps on the staircase creating a sense of space within the location. After a short, off-centre shot, obliquely framed by a doorway, that glimpses the father scuttling towards the front door, Chinami asks him if he could buy some milk while on his walk. The fact that he doesn't respond, verbally or physically, also reveals character, which is elaborated by the pair of women in another close two-shot ('He doesn't want the neighbours to see him with a shopping bag... Even at his age, he wants to be called "Doctor"'). This use of camera angle, silence, and mild revelation helps to create the family dynamic - the boisterous daughter, the chatty mother and the distant father. It lays the foundations for what develops into the major strands of the film's plot, which is based around observing this family, with its foibles, trauma and mild dysfunctions on display.

To this end, the house becomes an integral player in the drama. It is is a lived-in space, a three dimensional stage that, through meticulous production design and use of the camera, maintains a sense of reality. Throughout the film, Kore-eda mounts the camera from different angles, probing the space of the house for additional meaning and perspective. The room of the house that is given the most attention is, perhaps fittingly for a domestic drama, the kitchen. After the initial close-ups, the kitchen is shown later in the film in deep focus shots, often busy with activity, especially once Chinami's hyper-active family start terrorising the house, digging through the refrigerator for snacks and gulping down iced tea. Such long takes are also given to moments where the composed nature of the scene seems disrupted, with one repeated example being the wandering of Kyohei in the foreground and background of two shots, which not only emphasises the camera's observational gaze, but adds to the character's peripheral relationship with the kitchen's activity. Indeed, like with the tactful exposition, these shots seem designed to give an objective view of the action, taking away the overt aesthetics of cinematography in favour of immersing the audience in the scene.

However, as this isn't truly dramatic action in a Hollywood mould, Kore-eda creates a character-driven drama that places its conflict at arm's length. As Bordwell comments, Kore-eda 'lets us get to know and like his characters... [building] up his plot more through motifs than dramatic action' (1998). This continues the Proustian threads from Kore-eda's earlier films, where meaning, memory and subtext were carried by artefacts from characters' lives. In Still Walking, he diversifies this concept, spreading such emotional and thematic content throughout the house. Indeed, the house itself - which is half a domestic space, and half a, now useless, practice room for the retired doctor - carries memory for each family member, and also represents the stratified, passive-aggressive conflict between the mother and father characters.

Other objects carry this meaning, some containing memory - a crape myrtle tree planted in the garden, the popping of corn tempura, or a record that the mother uses as a twisted reminder of her husband's infidelity - and some containing visions of the future, such as a broken tile or a handrail in the bathroom reinforcing the inevitability of ageing and death. Indeed, the narrative focus on these motifs is similar to the storytelling side-step in After Life, where the film's interest is not on how the characters died, but on their memories. Here, focus seems to be on creating a believable depiction of life, including its 'sights, sounds... and even smells', but also the process of finding traces of meaning in everyday objects (Campbell, 2005). Kore-eda himself, in an interview with Reverse Shot, acknowledged this stylistic intention, and how it relates to the film's aesthetics and lack of overt narrative structure:

'I wanted to portray an everyday situation. There are no events, nothing changes, no characters have growth or sea changes. Why that’s not boring to watch is because in that one very ordinary day you can see the after effects of things that have happened in the past, and you can also see precursors of things that will happen in the future. And I think that’s what everyday life is.' (Reichert, 2009)

Here, Kore-eda seems to be suggesting that the reality of 'everyday life' is an aesthetic that can be separated from absolute, factual truth, in the name of something more evocative and emotional. This results in Still Walking: a film that, unlike his previous films Distance and Nobody Knows, which took inspiration from real events, has no link with factual occurrences. Yet, undeniably, it is a film that attains a powerful veracity, with its documentary eye presenting a truth that resounds through its fiction.

Next is my concluding section, 'Accepting Subjectivity, Fictionalising Reality'. Thank you for reading.

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