In Masahiro Kobayashi’s “Man Walking on Snow,” renowned actor Ken Ogata plays the title character, an elderly patriarch named Nobuo. At the start of the film, his family is fragmented into separate shards, his wife having passed away two years previous and his eldest son Ryoichi (Teruyuki Kagawa) absent for twelve. He is looked after by his younger son Yasuo (Yasufumi Hayashi) in Mashike, the isolated town in Hokkaido where his sake brewery is located. He is a stubborn and sometimes stern man, but is not a Lear-like tyrant. Rather, Ogata mostly portrays him as a senile old codger who is content with satisfying his little habits and fixations regardless of what others may think.
Nobuo faithfully adheres to a specific routine: every day, he bundles up and walks a considerable distance along desolate, snow-covered streets. His destination is a salmon farm where he visits the baby fish in their stacked, pull-out compartments, affectionately talking to them and running his hands through them. He also goes to see Michiko (Sayoko Ishii), a young woman who works at the farm. She and Nobuo uphold a warm friendship, though he takes it one step further one day by asking her to marry him. In the meantime, he asks Ryoichi, through Yasuo, to return to Mashike for the ceremony marking the two-year anniversary of his wife’s death. With his fiancée Nobuko (Nene Otsuka) pregnant and little certainty in terms of employment (he repeatedly mentions his recently aborted musical career), Ryoichi grudgingly complies and considers moving in with his father while catching up with his little brother.
“Man Walking on Snow” is a very modestly-scaled work, focusing on only a handful of characters in the sheltered, wintery Hokkaido setting. Eventually, hidden resentments float to the surface: Yasuo has been faithfully tending to his father and preparing his meals for the twelve years since Ryoichi left, essentially left with the short end of the stick. It seems that is but one of the many poor actions Ryoichi has made throughout his life, some of which, according to Nobuo during a tumultuous argument, having had consequences on his mother. However, the film never descends into overblown melodrama, and most of it actually consists of quiet, intimate moments between the main characters. There is a comical scene in a restaurant between Yasuo and his frustrated girlfriend Keiko (Fusako Urabe) in which the two of them combatively argue and exchange insults. For the most part, Nobuo comes across as a harmless eccentric who obsesses over canned coffee drinks and Okinawa , which he imagines as a land of perpetual summer. Every time he arrives at the fish farm, he is a little more afraid that Michiko has left for that very destination. There are several other nice scenes devoted to character, such as the ones between the two brothers simply talking with each other, and another in which Ryoichi and Nobuko lean against glowing vending machines outside a grocery store, him licking an ice cream cone.
Kobayashi exercises a quite varied and wide-ranging style, switching from jump cuts and hand-held tracking shots to static, carefully framed long takes. One of his oddest choices is to use synthesized versions of Camille Saint-Saëns pieces for the film’s score. The strange electronic music plays, among other scenes, during Nobuo’s long-distance walks, making him seem like a character in a Nintendo game of some sort as he trudges from one end of the frame to the other. Unfortunately, the film’s overall vision isn’t quite as direct or steadfast as Nobuo is during such sequences. Rather, its biggest weak point is its detectable aimlessness regarding its ideas and stories. Many of the characters remain isolated in enclosed groups that, for the most part, don’t interact. For example, there are scenes that focus on Nobuo with Michiko, Ryoichi with Nobuko and Ryoichi with Yasuo, but Michiko never meets the rest of the family, and it is only towards the end of the film when the father and his sons begin to share scenes together. As a result, there is a noticeable lack of urgency or even direction to the plot. The characters are mainly too preoccupied with their own separate interests and concerns for there to form the type of intriguing, forward-moving drama one might expect, and while there is some conflict regarding Yasuo’s duty as Nobuo’s caretaker, Ryoichi’s return to his family and Nobuo’s role as the father, the characters are ultimately too passive and underwritten to properly support the kind of actor-driven film Kobayashi was trying to make.
Yet “Man Walking on Snow” isn’t a complete loss, and for much of its running time, it is actually somewhat refreshing for its use of small, character-centered moments. Though flawed, it is still a fairly enjoyable, unconventional look at family dysfunction and inter-generational conflict.