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‘Tomodachi to Aruko (Walking With a Friend)’

Holding on to humor in the face of old age

by Mark Schilling

Akira Ogata’s “Tomodachi to Aruko (Walking with a Friend),” which screened in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, is one of many recent Japanese films about the problems of the elderly in this rapidly graying country. Unlike nearly all these films, its take on its two over-the-hill heroes — friends living disabled and alone in crumbling danchi (housing complex) apartments — is dryly comic, instead of earnestly serious or weepily sentimental.

Seeing it again after nearly half a year, I realized that the true key to the film is its title. There is plenty of real walking in the film by various sets of friends, old and new, but both the title and the story can also be read metaphorically, as in the saying “walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” The film is about how friendships deepen from not only jointly expended shoe leather, but also shared talk, adventures and pain. Being friends, it says, is not just putting up with another’s foibles but feeling his aches — or his absence.

Born in 1959 and thus no spring chicken himself, Ogata has extensive experience in everything from indie films to TV documentaries, though his filmography is relatively short, beginning in 2000 with the award-winning coming-of-age drama “Dokuritsu Shonen Gasshodan (Boy’s Choir).” A project born from a bar chat with scriptwriter Kenji Aoki, “Walking with a Friend” is low-budget indie filmmaking at its best, sustained more by its makers’ talent and professionalism than by commercial production values.

At the same time, the film is more simply made and leisurely paced than the work of many a young auteur, trying hard to impress with flashy cuts and twisty story lines. Some may find it too laid-back and slow, though even the pokier scenes are full of sly wit and ingenious visuals. Good walks are not always the briskest.

Tomodachi to Aruko (Walking With a Friend)
Rating
Director Akira Ogata
Run Time 89 minutes
Language Japanese

The film begins with the elderly Tomio (Koichi Ueda) gingerly descending the five flights from his danchi flat, using a cane and dragging a bad leg. Once on level ground he encounters his pal Kunio (Choei Takahashi), who walks in tiny stutter steps, somewhat like a gray-haired toddler.

Together these two make slow progress (at one point they are overtaken by a scurrying insect), until they meet up with a young woman (Hiroko Nozawa) on crutches who joins them on their errand and becomes the object of their comically lecherous gaze. But Tomio is also genuinely concerned for her welfare, knowing that she injured her leg making a suicidal leap. So is he more than a sukebe ojisan (dirty old man)?

The scene shifts to a nearby cafe, where two friends, the porky Mori (Satoru Matsuo) and porkpie-hatted Togashi (Yoichiro Saito) are arguing over that ancient conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Mori says yay, Togashi nay, and the back-and-forth becomes so heated that another customer — Tomio — tells them to pipe down. But how does their story connect to his?

The film has much further to go — three more parts, in fact but little in the way of a plot. Its episodic nature, however, does not mean it meanders. Instead each part, including Togashi and Mori’s awkward encounter with Mori’s irascible ex-wife (Kinuo Yamada) and her wimpy new man (Shingo Mizusawa) and a disastrous expedition by Tomio and Kunio to buy a pack of cigarettes, deepens our understanding of the four heroes and brings them, as well the themes they embody, closer together.

Meanwhile, the dryly funny gags keep coming, as does the quirky, perky score of composer coba, with Ogata adding his own acoustic guitar to the film’s catchy East European-flavored theme song.

The ending ties up nicely with the beginning, though the final message is left for us to parse. One is that, in an era when we can no longer take family ties and support for granted, friends are more important than ever, especially for the live-alone elderly. A dog will keep you company, but will it climb five flights on gimpy legs to make sure you’re OK? Yours might, but I’d rather bet on a human.