Engineering a miracle is child’s play — and anything but a cynical tearjerker
By MARK SCHILLING
Hirokazu Koreeda has risen to heights of international critical esteem that few of his generation can equal. An American film journal recently devoted nearly an entire issue to his films (with this reviewer contributing). But what foreign critics and fans often think they are getting — a director carrying on the humanistic traditions of Japanese cinema’s 1950s and 1960s Golden Age — is not quite what Koreeda is delivering.
Trained as a documentary filmmaker and long a staffer of the TV Man Union production house, he is outside the mainstream of the Japanese film business in which the Golden Age greats and their successors worked. Also, his style of naturalistic filmmaking, with its avoidance of melodrama and sentimentalism, owes as much to such foreign influences as Hou Hsiao Hsien and Theodoros Angelopoulos as to Mikio Naruse, Koreeda’s personal Golden Age hero.
Finally, as proven by his latest film, the childhood drama “Kiseki (I Wish),” Koreeda is also not quite the indie purist his admirers sometimes imagine. He has long had one eye on the big audience beyond the art house — and “I Wish,” with its story of two brothers conspiring to bring their divorced parents back together — targets it squarely.
But if the film does not equal his 2004 masterpiece “Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)” — one of the best films ever made about children, period — it is still completely Koreeda, meaning a combination of close, documentarylike observation and fine-layered fictional crafting. Also, it may have the look of a promo project for Kyushu, where it is set, and Japan Rail, whose new Kyushu bullet train line plays a big role in the plot, but “I Wish” is the rare Japanese commercial film that comes from the brain and heart of its director, not a production committee exploiting every possible revenue stream.
Two brothers — sixth-grader Koichi (Koki Maeda) and fourth-grader Ryunosuke (Oshiro Maeda) — both live in Kyushu, but are separated by their parent’s divorce. Koichi lives grumpily with his working mom (Nene Otsuka), Japanese-sweets-making grandfather (Isao Hashizume) and hula-dance-loving grandmother (Kirin Kiki) in Kagoshima. He doesn’t much care for the gritty ash from the nearby volcano or even the blandish sweets that granddad turns out. In fact, he wishes the volcano would wipe the whole place off the map — and that Mom and Dad could get back together.
Meanwhile the perpetually chipper Ryunosuke is rather enjoying life with his laid-back musician father (Joe Odagiri) in Fukuoka. Dad’s band-mates are cool (even if their CDs don’t sell), and the prettiest girl in Ryunosuke’s class, Emi (Kyara Uchida), likes him, though their “romance” consists of hanging out with her and her girlfriends. But he seconds his brother’s wish, while remembering little more from family life than constant bickering between his parents.
Then Koichi hears a rumor that when the new bullet trains first pass each other — one coming from Hakata in the north and anther from Kagoshima in the south — the energy they generate will cause wishes to come true. There’s just one catch: Wishers have to be there on the spot when the trains pass. Koichi calls up Ryunosuke on his cellphone and proposes a plan: They meet at a midway point and, by combining their wishes, better guarantee a happy outcome — that is, a family reunion.
This may sound like a setup for a saccharine, feel-good sob-fest, and I’m sure that’s what the film would have become if the usual production suspects had been in charge. Koreeda doesn’t entirely kill the sweetness; his two child leads — real-life brothers who perform as the manzai (comic duo) act Maeda Maeda — are charmers, especially the ball-of-energy younger one, who could give a chipmunk lessons in cuteness. Thankfully, the brothers are also gifted naturals who lend a real-kidlike credibility to every scene — while demonstrating again Koreeda’s unsurpassed talent for casting and directing children.
Also, it’s hard not to feel good when the brothers, with the aid of school friends and sympathetic adults, make their fantastic plan a reality. At a time when so much has gone so wrong with so many plans in this country, watching Koichi methodically map out the exact point where the two trains will cross — and get it right — is somehow inspiring. (With kids like that around, there’s hope for this country yet.)
At the same time, instead of a formulaic “innocent kids reunite warring parents” story line, Koreeda complicates his narrative with the sort of selective memories and mixed motivations that are recognizably human, if hardly pure. The kids, we see, are neither angels nor the troubled souls of the usual local “problem” film; they are ordinarily flawed.
Finally, Koreeda — much like his idol, Naruse — rejects the tearjerking tactics of the orthodox Japanese melodrama. Yes, the tears come (at least to this easy-mark reviewer), but they are earned, not extracted. That’s miracle enough.