The Movie streaming site Mübi gifted me this week with two Hirokazu Kore-eda films, Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). I have been a fan of this director for years, based on the only films I’d had a chance to screen: Mabarosi (1995), After Life (1998), and Nobody Knows (2004). In the religion and film course I used to offer regularly to undergraduates I nearly always assign After Life. I find it pairs perfectly with passages about memoire involuntaire from Swann’s Way and with ritual theory that unpacks how rituals anchor identity not just by the repetitions that thread us affectively into specific memories and histories, but also by the cognitive and practical labor of a representation that coalesces and channels affect-laden memories and commitments.
Both Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son center on the cis, heteronormative family structure, and both yield a central place to children. Unexpectedly, however, the focus on children is not a focus on futurity or even on the endurance of blood or repetition of the bloodline. Each decidedly disturbs and upturns such assumptions about what (who) a family is and does.
In Still Walking, the beloved son died years ago saving another, weaker boy from drowning. His brother–disaffected with his elderly parents and haunted in his own way by the lingering worry that he, too, is a weaker boy–refuses to follow his father’s professional or domestic footsteps. His work has to do with art and music, and he has married a young widow who already has a six-year-old son. In Like Father, Like Son, the mother of a wealthy couple dotes on their only son and longs for her husband to be more emotionally engaged with them, while another family–composed of a boisterous, merchant-class mom and pop and their three children–seems to have an excess of love and play to counterbalance their lack of economic stability. The premise of this film is that two baby boys were switched at the hospital at birth, the only son of the wealthy couple, and one of the two sons of the working-class family. The hospital recommends that they switch the boys soon, before they begin elementary school, but what is stronger, what is more true: blood relations? Or six years of intimate being-family with one another?
I am always impressed with Kore-eda’s quiet cinematography and patient storytelling, and these films are no exception. Each in its own way brought to mind the two affect theorists I will see (I hope) this weekend in Chicago, Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. Still Walking grinds down into the everyday. It grabs us with its attention to the chatter between mother and daughter over how to make a traditional dish, with the flurry of cousins darting through the dining room where the adults are trying to be civil with one another, with the rituals of family altars and cemetery visits, and with its distracted camera that drifts over landscape and through windows even as the characters continue to talk.
Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects that “The ordinary is a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life. Ordinary affects are the varied, surging capacities to affect and to be affected that give everyday life the quality of a continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences. They’re things that happen.”
What we notice, in watching Still Walking is that it is the daily accumulation, charge and discharge, and sedimentation of these ordinary affects that materially make a life, a family, a history. What we notice in it, and in Like Father, Like Son is the tight coil of the past within the beating pulse of the present. As Lauren Berlant notes in Cruel Optimism, “If the present is not at first an object but a mediated affect, it is also a thing that is sensed and under constant revision, a temporal genre whose conventions emerge from the personal and public filtering of the situations and events that are happening in an extended now whose very parameters (when did “the present” begin?) are also always there for debate.”
The present is not an object–and not a moment–but a mediated affect. That sentence perfectly captures what I think Kore-eda is up to in these two films.