Tuesday, October 22, 2013

'I Wish' / 奇跡 (2011) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

I love a film that stops and smells the roses.  It's a hallmark of a confident, artistically minded director with the confidence to slow down and focus on atmosphere.  I Wish is almost entirely devoted to contemplative rose-sniffing, Kore-eda proving himself a director supremely unconcerned with driving, propulsive plot and far more interested in domestic routines, minute details and tiny social interactions.

At the core of I Wish are Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohsiro Maeda), two young brothers separated by their parent's separation.  Koichi lives with his till jocket mother in Kagoshima, a city in the shadow of an active volcano.  Ryunosuke lives with his indie-rocker father in Fokuoko, living a slightly neglected, if relatively happy, vegetable-growing existence.  Within Kagoshima, much talk is made of a new extension to the bullet train or Shinkansen that will pass through their town.  Schoolyard legend says that if you travel to the point where the oncoming bullet trains pass each other, the force generated will grant wishes.  So gathering up their friends the children calculate where the trains will meet and make plans to travel there to fulfil their wishes; in Koichi's case that his broken family be reunited; for others variously to resurrect their dead dog; to become a great artist; to succeed as an actor and so on.

These desires are granted their own little subplots, and quickly Kore-eda builds up a complex tapestry of domestic life in suburban Japan, a microcosmic world of little desires, worries, ambitions and routine.  I Wish is all about the details of life, the film pausing to observe the children's routine of brushing up the volcanic ash that falls into their schoolyard, ordering octopus balls for lunch from a street vendor or showing us exactly how to make good karukan cake.  

It's an unbashedly idyllic portrait of Japanese life, showing us a land of caring family units, sensitive teachers, close-knit friends and friendly welcoming strangers.  I've never been to Japan, but I suspect that cosy, comforting picture that Kore-eda paints is just a bit idealised. It's telling that I viewed the film at a screening held by the Embassy of Japan in London. They're keen to increase tourism to Japan, with their current focus apparently being on promotion of the bullet train. With that motive in mind, it's slightly suspicious how positive I Wish is about the Shinkansen. It's surreal watching a film where a real-life mass transit system is romanticised to the point where it gains magical wish-granting powers.  Then again the Shinkansen is a really neat train as far as trains go.

Kore-eda's Japan is pretty far from the stereotypical cinematic Japan of neon-drenched Shinjuku, Hello Kitty obsessed teenagers and giant robot animé.  Paradoxically, even though this is a 'normal' low-key Japan the cultural differences in cultures are that much more striking.  The biggest surprise is how blasé every adult in the film is about a group of young children disappearing for a day or two.  Aided by a friendly school nurse and a knowing smile from the teacher they cut class and take an overnight trip to what seems like a very distant place.

The highlight is when, needing a place to stay for the night, the 8 children happen across a random elderly couple hanging up their washing.  They take them into their house, feed them, wash them, give them a big cosy bed and drop them off in a field.  It's difficult to imagine this sequence of events happening in Britain, to put it mildly.  Here, the missing children would be splashed across the front pages of the newspapers, heat-vision helicopters dispatched, the elderly couple viewed with extreme suspicion and condemned for not alerting the police.

There's a good argument that Kore-eda has created a child's eye view of the world. Everything is tinged with a cute optimism, from the poppy and bouncy score to the dialogue, mining a nice vein of humour by having everyone talk at cross-purposes, the adults mainly existing in a kind of deadpan confusion at their children's behaviour. As the central characters, the Maeda brothers are utterly convincing: their conversations having a sparky, improvised air.  But every performance in the film adds an individual touch of authenticity, every action borne of experience.

The finest moment of the film comes in an unexpectedly touching and intense montage when the trains pass that acts as a summation of all the tiny details Kore-eda wants us to think about.  We see crisps lying at the bottom of an empty bag, a bicycle bell sitting on a counter, drawings of a volcano erupting, a sponge cake - all everyday objects - but by this point in the film, imbued with meaning and symbolism.  A million tiny moments add up to a life. I Wish is nudges us to appreciate what's going on around us, warning that to only consider the bigger picture means you'll miss the beauty of life.

This movie starts out very slow and has a lot to keep track of.  For the first 20 minutes or so I was a bit put off by this, but once you understand this tangle of interpersonal relationships, you empathise with them and laugh along with the gentle humour that suffuses their humdrum, yet important, existences.  It feels slightly obvious to compare Kore-eda with the stately, deeply felt films of Yasujirō Ozu, but it's unavoidable, the film making me feel the same appreciation of family and friends as classics of Japanese cinema like Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon.  

Thanks to the Embassy of Japan for the screening.

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