A really strong effort from Korreda, but nothing earth-shattering and it’s certainly a bit away from being his very best film. It’s not fair to look at a film’s marketing and actually draw conclusions from that, but considering the advertisements for this, it’s easy to see that the intention was something of a fantastical realist thing for kids. It’s not completely ridiculous (though it does threaten to enter such territory on more than one occasion but it isn’t the most fertile ground for a really amazing personal statement, either. It’s charming and fun experience with frequent shades of Koreeda’s brilliance.
The story follows two brothers – Koichi and Ryunosuke – who are currently living apart. The former is the older sibling and he lives with his mother and her parents. The latter is the younger sibling and he lives with his father, a struggling musician who is able to take care of his son through child support. There’s a heavy implication that the parents separated bitterly. The seem irritated whenever one of their sons brings up the other spouse. In the mean time, Koichi escapes to his imagination. He hears of a new train line that will connect Kagoshima, where he currently lives, to Fukoka, where his younger brother lives with his father.
The train develops a mythology that fascinates Koichi. The rumor is that when two trains run by each other, they will do so at such a great velocity that anyone nearby will be granted a wish. This is his plan to save the family. It’s cute enough on paper, but it obviously takes on another level on screen. The separated parents aren’t the tragedy being played up here, but we do get flashbacks or just pure fantasies of both their happier moments together and the moments that likely reflected the decision to separate. Even their yelling matches seem slightly wistful when seen through the eyes of their two very young sons.
I’m not particularly fond of this “magical realist” approach, but Koreeda’s vision of it isn’t particularly grating. His focus is more on the “realist” part as there isn’t really anything magical except for the film’s clever conclusion, but still even the imaginative input from the two protagonist seems grounded in reality, if only because this is a filmmaker who knows how to make such a film. Yes, this is largely long(ish) static shots, definitely not feeling austere like Tsai, but certainly challenging the limits of what would be a straightforward children’s movie. There’s plenty of silly children doing silly children things, but it’s never jumps out of the film’s own framework. I mean, this isn’t a narrative-heavy film to begin with (which is a good thing obviously) but Koreeda’s children and their hijinx never feels particularly episodic, which can be good or bad depending on who you’re asking.
One unquestionably positive aspect of the film is the visuals. The cinematography is the work of Koreeda’s long-time collaborator, Yutaka Yamasaki. They’ve always made beautiful looking movies, but some of the earlier films are perhaps marred by DVD issues. It was a revelation when I saw Still Walking because I finally had an idea of what was missed in blurry and dark copies of After Life and Maborosi, though it’s worth noting the latter was actually shot by Masao Nakabori. Even expecting something special didn’t really prepare for some of the more impressive shots. There’s even a sequence involving the children smelling flowers that weirdly feels ripped from Malick and even though the steadicam sequence seems out of place in a film composed with mostly static shots, it actually fits in perfectly considering the sunset type of beauty represented throughout this film.
This is definitely not the first time I’ve wanted to write about a film but couldn’t muster much other than “the content is nice, but it REALLY looks nice.” I realize that isn’t a particularly helpful observation since there’s really only so many ways you can say a film looks good, but here I am backtracking, trying to reinforce the point of this film’s visual strengths. What I’m trying to say is, I guess it really is important. The story is charming, I guess, but I think the biggest compliment is that it manages to avoid all the traps of being a really mushy film about kids being upset about their parents splitting. More credit to Koreeda that he avoided the infuriating and insulting “kids show their parents they can love each other again” thing. The focus is still the kids, but they’re never the authoritative figures on the relationship between the adults and that’s accurate. But again, watch this movie because it’s gorgeous.