I Wish

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Time for a brief trip to the world of Japanese Cinema…

Kore-eda Hirokazu isn’t a name that’ll be familiar to any but the most ardent art-house cinema buffs or serious Japanese culture geeks – but it should be.  He’s a documentary trained director who’s turned his talents to narrative films that are quite unlike anything else I’ve seen.  The unaffected, natural performances he gets from  his actors – especially children – are quite remarkable.  And that’s never been on better display than is his most recent work, 2011’s “I Wish”,  which is currently in the midst of a small distribution in American theaters.  Kore-eda’s method for directing kids involves not using a script with them – he simply feeds them their lines as the shooting progresses, and perhaps this in part is why child actors in his films appear not to be performing at all.

Kore-eda-sensei has been doing mostly narrative films since the mid-90’s, but there are two that stand out for me – the utterly heartbreaking Nobody Knows (2004) the story of siblings forced to survive when they’re abandoned by their mother, and Still Walking (2008) a ruthless deconstruction of a Japanese family spanning three generations.  I Wish probably doesn’t rise quite to that level, but it’s still a remarkable movie nonetheless – more overtly emotional than any work Kore-eda has done before, seemingly loose in structure but actually quite intricate.  It’s the story of two brothers, 12 year-old Oosako Kouchi (Maeda Koki) and 10 year-old Ryonosuke (Maeda Oshiro) forced to split up when their parents separate, each living on opposite ends of Kyushu.  A friend tells Kochi that magic will happen when the newly constructed Kyushu Shinkansen trains pass each other for the first time – a wish will be granted – and Kouchi sets off to meet his brother in the small town where he calculates the bullet trains will intersect.

One of the most interesting elements is that the brothers in the film are played by real brothers, the Maedas – and not only that, the boys are already a well-known Manzai comic team known as “Maeda Maeda”.  Given that, it’s hardly surprising that they have a great rapport on camera – except that in the film, the brothers are separated by hundreds of miles, and rarely appear together physically.  Kouchi is a classic over-thinker, miserable with his mother in the Southern town of Kagoshima, where ash from an erupting volcano rains on the town daily – and the fact that the townsfolk seem little concerned mystifies him.  Meanwhile Ryu is an adorable, happy-go-lucky ball of energy, seemingly quite happy with his struggling rocker Dad in urbane Fukuoka, on the Nortnern tip of the island.  Kouchi would do anything to bring his family back together – Ryu simply wants no part of being around constantly fighting parents again.

The lives of the brothers are skillfully interwoven by Maeda with a network of others – parents, grandparents, and the small circle of friends each boy gathers around himself.  Each child has their own set of worries, and their own wishes – and all of them become part of the story, as do those of the adults.  But the whole film is remarkably effective at communicating just how bizarre the world is to a grade-schooler – the way people behave, and the way the world itself behaves.  Small things become serious, and serious things seem trivial – and throughout it all, the kids behave as if they’re making their way through their daily lives, unaware of a film crew anywhere in sight.  This is Kore-eda’s magic – to be able to make the artifice of film disappear, and to seduce the audience into losing all sense that they’re watching a film at all.  It’s never more effective than when the camera is on the children, but it cuts through all of his best work.

Kore-eda’s films are, in general, a must-see for anyone interested in seeing the minutiae of Japanese daily life and the dynamics of the Japanese family play out in utterly believable ways – they’re a crash course in modern Japanese culture.  But I wish in particular stands out as some of the most free-flowing, natural filmmaking you’ll see – as with so much from Japan, it’s utterly unlike what we’ve come to expect in Western films.  Spielberg can elicit great performances from children (see A.I. for the finest example) but one never loses sight of the performance.  If anything, there’s a bit of Francois Truffaut in Kore-eda – and perhaps just a bit of Antoine Doinel in Oosako Kouichi.

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  1. a

    Ah, I saw (and reviewed) this one back in October when it screened the BFI Film Festival in London. It was my first Koreeda film – still have to see the other two you mention (I will, absolutely want to, but haven't yet for lack of time).

    "I Wish" wasn't perfect (I think you hit mark with "it doesn't quite rise to that level"), but I did like it a lot. There are many wonderful moments in it.

  2. Indeed there are, thanks for commenting. I think you'll enjoy those other two films as well, as they're both masterpieces – though both (especially Nobody Knows) go to some pretty dark places.

  3. a

    I don't mind dark – I think the Japanese excel at 'dark films' (or what I call 'bleakies', due to their mostly depressing nature).

    I mean, I like the comedies too, but somehow 70% of the time I end up watching things like Himizu, Confessions, Nemuri Yusurika/Sleep, Bokura no Mirai/Our Future….

    Will let you know what I think once I watch Koreeda's other works. 🙂

  4. e

    Oh you wonderful man XD, keep picking good stuff with an enticing presentation and I'll end up taking whatever you feed me.
    *currently paling at the quantity of stuff I'm watching since following LiA*

  5. Waifu, you're dangerously good for my ego.

  6. a

    I didn't know you watched live action stuff as well. This sounds really interesting. I should pick this up when I have the time. The Japanese live-action movies I've seen have been really bland so it's nice to see something with a good story-telling method. On the other hand, I recommend the 2011 Korean movie Sunny! I think you might enjoy the slice of life tale it offers 🙂

  7. A

    Very interesting … thank you for this write up Enzo. I was unaware of these. 🙂

    – Flower

  8. K

    Oh I love him, and I am not really sure why he hasn't been recognized more here, I don't think he has even won an Academy award for best foreign film. (at least Still Walking was released by Criterion)

    Koreeda gives me a similar feel to Yasujiro Ozu and well that is the highest praise I can give.

    I have not seen "I Wish" yet but I am looking forward to it to when it finally comes to my city's art house theater.

  9. K

    Wow, you watch Live Action stuff too?!
    Beside this one (as it does sound interesting), any others(dramas or films) you'd recommend?
    I've watched Last Friends, Great Teacher Onizuka, Densha Otoko, just to name a few, as I never quite made the complete jump from anime to live action.

    I did enjoy a few films though, albeit they're of the animated variety. 3 cm/s, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time , all three of which I enjoyed.

    Anyways, to get back on topic… any others besides this film you'd recommend? be it drama or cinema?

    Thanks 😛

  10. Well, to start with the two Kore-eda films I mentioned in the review – Still Walking and Nobody Knows. I'm also a big fan of "The Quiet Samurai", as it's the most thoughtful samurai film I can recall. BTW I do occasionally review live-action films on here, such as "Thirteen Assassins" which is another one I'd recommend.

    In terms of the classics, you need to acquaint yourself with Ozu and Kurasawa if you're serious about Japanese Cinema. Tokyo Story would be a good place to start with Ozu, perhaps Rashomon or Seven Samurai with Kurasawa.

    If you want to check out anime films, there's a huge range of possibilities. You mentioned TGWLTT, and if you liked it I liked Hosoda's "Summer Wars" even better. Any of the Miyazaki-directed Ghiblis are worthwhile (Mononoke Hime is my favorite)as well as some of the other Ghibli stuff, like Arrietty and Grave of the Fireflies. BONES' Sword of the Stranger is excellent.

    Most of all, though, on the anime side I'd check out "Colorful". One of the most powerful films I've seen, animated or otherwise. If you check the "Movie/OVA" tag you'll see many of these reviewed on LiA.

  11. A

    Movie: Departures
    Drama: 1 Liter of Tears

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