Forced to live apart due to their parents’ separation, a 12 year old (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother (Ohshiro Maeda) hatch a complicated plan to reunite their family.
5/5 The Guardian: 94% Rotten Tomatoes: 7.4 Imdb
Trailer: Click Here
HIROKAZU KOREEDA (taken from a BFI review of the director’s work)
Despite a critically acclaimed, award-laden career stretching over 20 years, Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda probably remains a household name only to more hardcore cinephiles. And though most of his work regularly graces major international film festivals (his 1995 debut feature Maborosi won a prize at Venice and he’s been in competition five times at Cannes, winning 2013’s Jury prize for Like Father, like Son) and garners international distribution, he’s never had the breakout foreign-language success of an Amelie (2001) or Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), nor accrued the vocal cult following of auteurs like Wong Kar-wai or Pedro Almodóvar.
If, on one hand, it’s a shame that such an accomplished filmmaker hasn’t found greater widespread recognition, on the other it almost goes against the very essence of Koreeda’s habitual work. His films are intimate domestic dramas, languid in pace and muted in overt sentiment, but rich in quotidian detail and imbued with unexpectedly deep emotional resonance. They are mellow drama, not melodrama, even when dealing with Like Father, like Son’s tear-jerking high-concept of mistakenly-swapped-at-birth boys.
Still Walking (2008)
The family is the heart of almost every Koreeda film, usually formulated around some central lack or absence: a husband’s inexplicable suicide in Maborosi (1995); the mother who abandons her four young children in Nobody Knows (2004); or the annual clan gathering in Still Walking (2008) to remember the son who died young.
As if to prove his versatility, Koreeda occasionally pursues potent fantasy like the sublime After Life (1998) or quirky inflatable romance Air Doll (2009). Yet even these still foreground his documentary roots, grounded in protagonists’ emotional relationships with one another and their environment.
If comparisons to the great Yasujiro Ozu, another Japanese master of family drama, are understandable (and perhaps a touch overly flattering), Koreeda’s social realist underpinnings (more akin to Ken Loach at his most relaxed), diversity and understated artistry mark him out as a great humanist filmmaker in his own right.
I WISH (2011). If advocating gentle immersion as the best strategy for getting into Koreeda, then his wonderful I Wish (2011) is a good baptism. It balances plaintive family discord – two brothers separated by their parents’ divorce, each living across the country with one partner – and the temperate handling of a fantasy element: the belief that when two bullet trains connecting their distant towns cross, wishes will be magically fulfilled.
Working with two real-life siblings, Koki and Oshiro Maeda, Koreeda again shows himself as one of the great directors of children. He once told me that he never gives kids a script, instead talking them through scenes as play, resulting in a roster of utterly natural and unaffected performances – certainly the case here. Around this he structures a wise and warm coming-of-age tale hitched to the stop-start, rambling emotions of his leads, rather than driven by narrative plot points and all the more affecting for it.
A more challenging, atypical opening gambit might be arguably Koreeda’s masterpiece, After Life (1998). It’s set in a mundane, bureaucratic purgatory where the recently deceased are encouraged to choose a single memory to spend eternity with, which the overworked way-station staff endeavours to recreate and then film for them. Incorporating real people’s testimonies (from a previous documentary project) with actors, its naturalistic tone imperceptibly shifts into a profoundly poetic, powerful look at loss, memory and moviemaking itself.
Once on Koreeda’s unhurried, watchful wavelength, why not try his first feature Maborosi (1995), which follows a widow’s coastal relocation and efforts to rebuild her life after her spouse takes his own life. Replete with lengthy dialogue-free passages and nods to his famous ‘pillow shots’ (short reflective images linking scenes), it’s Koreeda’s most overtly Ozu-esque work.
Nobody Knows (2004)
Based on a true story, 2004’s Nobody Knows charts the abandonment by their mother and slow descent into feral degradation of four children in a small Tokyo apartment. Given such a tragic premise, it’s yet again uncanny how Koreeda discreetly breaks one’s heart without ever seeming to yank on heartstrings. And Yuya Yagira’s stunning lead performance as 12-year-old Akita, forced to assume responsibility for his younger siblings at the expense of his own childhood, deservedly won best actor at Cannes.
Still Walking (2008) is another career highpoint for Koreeda and allegedly a highly personal work following his own mother’s death. Compared to the exaggerated contrivances that most family reunion dramas impose on their characters and audiences alike, the simple, serene observation of family dynamics and what they don’t say when they talk about the most painful shared history – here the death of an elder son who attempted to save a drowning boy – speaks with nuance and wisdom.
Some may consider Like Father, like Son (2013) as Koreeda-lite, though the planned Hollywood remake will do well to match its touching, understated examination of nature vs nurture. His latest, Our Little Sister (2015), is based on a popular manga comic series about three twentysomething sisters who effectively adopt and install their teenage half-sister into the family home when their mutual father dies. It’s slight at first glance but, as it unfurls through seasonal markers like plum gathering and summer fireworks, Koreeda coaxes lovely performances from his female leads while his subtle shifting camerawork gently unpicks the ties that bind with admirable assurance.
An Interview with Hirokazu Kore-eda on the release of Our Little Sister (taken from The Guardian)
When I meet the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore–eda, it is in a shady and pleasant Cannes garden, where he sits next to his interpreter, through whom questions and answers must be channelled: a set-up that creates an unmistakably courtly atmosphere of reverence – not inappropriate.
We meet after the premiere of his latest film, Our Little Sister. It is a drama of sweetness and delicacy derived from the manga Umimachi Diary by Akimi Yoshida, about three adult sisters who have lived together in a house belonging to their grandmother after their parents’ divorce, and who agree to take responsibility for their 13-year-old half-sister after their father’s death.
This is another of the heartfelt, painful “family dramas” in which Kore-eda now seems to specialise – such as the baby-swap film Like Father, Like Son (2013), I Wish (2011), in which two young siblings live apart after their parents’ marital breakdown, Still Walking (2008), in which a family is tormented by the loss of a son killed saving another boy from drowning and, indeed, Nobody Knows (2004), in which a 12-year-old kid has to look after his younger siblings when their mother walks out. The pathos and poignancy has led Kore-eda to be compared to the great master Yasujiro Ozu. I have loved Kore-eda’s work since I saw his strange cult movie After Life (1998), about an imaginary place in which we can choose our happiest memory, and live in it for ever after we die.
I ask Kore-eda about the importance of absences in families: the painful gaps. “I loved making a story about this,” he replies. “It is important to have a story about a family with some family members missing. But someone else is there, trying to take over the role of parents. They try to reconstruct that family bond. I love that sort of story. It affects me a lot.”
He goes on to explain that creating and filling gaps is what families are all about: “In the last 15 years, I lost my father, I lost my mother and I have a daughter. I have become a father. So I have realised that we always try to get ‘in between’. Something is missing, so we always try to take over. From the older generation to the next generation.”
I ask about his own family, and his siblings – two older sisters growing up in 60s and 70s Tokyo. Did his parents like cinema? Kore-eda’s eyes light up. “My mother loved films! She adored Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, Vivien Leigh. We couldn’t afford to go together to the cinema, but she was always watching their movies on TV. She stopped all family business or discussions to watch these movies. We would watch together. So I adored film – like her.”
I ventured to say that his mother must have been delighted when he told her that he wanted to be a movie director. At this idea, Kore-eda laughs and shakes his head. “No. My mother was really against it when I said I wanted to make films. She said that I should be a civil servant. Because that was safe, and it had security. But my mother was always very proud of my movies, and would give videocassettes of them to all the neighbours.”
And how about his father, I ask. Kore-eda’s smile is replaced with a sombre expression. “My father did not have a lot of security in his life. He did odd jobs. He had a real struggle to make money. He lost a lot of time in his 20s, after the war, because he was sent to a forced-labour camp in Siberia.” Kore-eda’s father was a soldier in the Kwantung army in the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria, defeated by Soviet forces in August 1945, a catastrophe for Japan that, almost as much as Hiroshima, hastened the surrender. Despite this formal capitulation, the Soviets treated captured troops as PoWs rather than civilian internees: Kore-eda Sr was one of approximately 500,000 men sent to labour camps. About a tenth of them died out there, and they were not all finally released until the early 1950s. “When he was drunk,” says Kore-eda quietly, “he would always tell us how horrible the Russians were.”
I ask how he reacts to being compared to Yasujiro Ozu. “I of course take it as a compliment,” he replies carefully. “I try to say thank you. But I think that my work is more like Mikio Naruse [the Japanese director of sombre working-class dramas] – and Ken Loach.
I can’t resist asking about After Life, and how perplexingly difficult I found it to think of a truly “heavenly” memory in which I might want to spend eternity. Kore-eda smiles and shakes his head a little: “If you can’t choose, it means that you are still alive. Choose, and you’re dead.I mention that my favourite line in his works is said by the amiable slacker dad in I Wish: “Not everything has to be significant. Imagine if everything had meaning. You would choke!” It’s a sublime aesthetic credo. Is he aware of attaching significance to detail in his films?
“Details are important in a very small and subtle way,” he says. “In Our Little Sister, food is important: for example, when the women speak about the plum wine and the white fish.”
What food did his mother serve Kore-eda and his sisters? “We used to have prawn tempura: that was my mother’s favourite dish. But she had to go out to work, instead of my father, so she couldn’t find the time to cook nice meals. So we ate more modern food: a lot of frozen and instant food. But I never complained about it to my mother.” It occurs to me that Kore-eda is painting a picture of his home life that is rather different from the formal Ozu-esque poise of his films: the Kore-edas sitting on the couch, eating a ready meal, watching a Joan Fontaine movie on TV.
But, as Kore-eda says when talking about the incidental details in films, you always have to focus what lies beneath: “What are the characters really talking about?” he says. “Not wine or food … but family.”
REVIEWS OF “I WISH” (CONTAINS SPOILERS – so if you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read!!)
The Guardian review:
One of the year’s best films has arrived quietly, unnoticed by the awards-season cheerleaders, but with its delicacy and complexity, it puts the Oscar-bait to shame. Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish has taken two years to come to the UK. It has been more than worth the wait. Like his earlier movie Still Walking, this is a deeply considered Japanese family drama in the tradition of Ozu, with echoes of Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang – moving, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, often mysterious. The film is about the powerful imperative of family unity, but also about the inevitability, and even desirability, of families finally disintegrating and allowing everyone involved a painful kind of freedom.
The original title is Kiseki, or “Miracle”, and a miracle is being longed for by two brothers, around nine or 10 years old: they are Koichi and Ryu, played by real-life brothers Koki and Ohshirô Maeda, from whom the director gets terrifically natural and relaxed performances. Their mum and dad have broken up; Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) has returned to live with her parents and taken a demeaning supermarket job in her hometown of Kagoshima, within sight of the Sakura-jima volcano, which, with eerie calm, like a figure in a painting, is in a state of silent eruption on the distant skyline. It deposits a fine film of ash over everything, which the city-dwellers must continually clean away. Koreeda does not belabour the metaphorical quality of this volcano, or the Pompei-snapshot of ordinariness he himself records. Meanwhile the father, Kenji, (Jô Odagiri) stays in Osaka, where he pursues the laid-back slacker lifestyle that so infuriated Nozomi, failing to hold down day jobs while in the evenings trying to be a guitarist in a band.
The difficult and upsetting thing about this arrangement – never fully discussed by anyone, adult or child – is that the warring parents have taken a child each: withdrawn, thoughtful Koichi has gone to his mother and grandparents; easygoing and smiley Ryu has gone to live with his dad. Clearly, this setup is a way the couple have found of signalling to others and to each other that the breakup is temporary; they are taking a break and sharing the childcare burden equally, though without fully considering how the children will feel about it. But as the days and months go by, Koichi can feel the situation hardening into permanence and, talking with his brother on his mobile, hatches a strange and poignant new plan: he has heard that the two newly built bullet train lines create a supernatural energy at the point where the trains whoosh past each other. If the boys can just contrive to skive off school and make a wish at this focal point, their happiness can be restored.
Much of the richness and fascination consists in showing how everyone’s lives are just rolling along – and in showing how there are other lives and other stories developing in parallel to the main event and beginning to mean just as much. One of Koichi’s friends has developed a crush on his teacher and steals her bicycle bell; Koichi’s grandfather, who is trying to market his own brand of sweets, finds a new ally in Koichi himself, who is willing to taste them and share his opinions. One of Ryu’s friends is a child actor getting work on ads and TV shows, and we see her mother, a failed actress, becoming restive and resentful. These narratives are branching out unobtrusively, but with quiet purpose and definition.
How much weight should we attach to each detail? Who is behaving badly – or behaving significantly? What ought and ought not to be happening? Part of the film’s wisdom resides in declining to take a view. As the boys’ dad says: “There’s room in this world for wasteful things. Imagine if everything had meaning. You’d choke.” It’s a credo that colours the montage of still images that Koreeda produces just before the end. And when the boys finally meet, the encounter is not as intimate or climactic as Koichi had wanted; or, for them, as significant. Yet there is a resolution, of sorts. Perhaps their mum and dad’s split is temporary after all. But then, so is everything.
Since his fascinating feature breakthrough, Afterlife, in 1998, Koreeda has established himself as a supremely intelligent and valuable film-maker: I Wish is the moving and deeply satisfying work of a director who just keeps on getting better.
BFI Film of The Week Review:
In his latest film Koreeda Hirokazu picks up where Edward Yang left off in A One and a Two… (Yi Yi), with a searching and immersively moving account of three generations in one family: the mild dottiness of the grandparents as they look for ways to occupy the hours and days, the emotional and financial problems of the parents who have been separated for six months, and most of all the joys, fears and dreams of the kids. Koreeda greatly admired Yang (one of his early TV documentaries was a double-portrait of the Taiwanese masters Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien) and he has gradually acquired Yang’s ability to combine left-brain analysis with right-brain sensitivity. He looks more and more like a master himself.
I Wish (the Japanese title Kiseki means ‘Miracle’) has two points of departure, one factual, one fictional. The factual one is the opening of the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) service from Hakata to Kagoshima in Kyushu, Japan’s large western island. Most of the film is divided between two stops on this line, the northern city of Fukuoka and the southern terminus Kagoshima, the latter menaced by the proximity of the semi-active volcano Sakurajima; the climax takes place near the town of Kawashiri, the exact mid-point of the new line.
The fictional one is a schism in the working-class Osako family: the wife has left her feckless husband and moved to stay with her elderly parents in Kagoshima, together with her elder son, the 12-year-old Koichi, while the husband, who works as a labourer while trying to revive his career as an indie rocker, lives in Fukuoka with their younger son Ryunosuke (Ryu for short).
The parents haven’t spoken in months, but the boys call each other from school every day. Koichi wants more than anything to reunite the family, but Ryu dreads returning to the days of angry rows across the dinner table and rather likes the status quo, which includes having new friends and growing vegetables in the back garden.
Fact and fiction converge when Koichi gets it into his head that the first north- and south-bound trains to run on the new line will release magical energy when they pass each other at the mid-point – a magical energy which will make dreams come true. The core of the film is Koichi’s gradual realisation that he’s not at all sure what his dream is: he goes from longing for Sakurajima to erupt (so that the family will have to leave the “dump” of Kagoshima) to longing for his parents to come back together and ultimately to putting “the world” ahead of the family. Koichi remembers the good times (a family picnic in an Osaka theme park), while Ryu can’t forget the bad times; the younger boy’s doubts inflect and help to shape his elder brother’s sense of their situation.
Like everything else in the film, this seems truthful, accurately observed and superbly acted. Koreeda has been attuned to the feelings of kids in difficult family circumstances since his feature debut Maboroshi (Maborosi, 1995), and his direction of all the children here (especially real-life brothers Maeda Koki and Maeda Oshiro) is almost uncannily empathetic. Koichi’s reaction to his teacher’s attempt to come on like a surrogate father is spot-on, and the way that Ryu acts his age when he’s with his peers but treats his father like a wayward child is a particular comic joy.
Koreeda has learnt from Yang that no detail is unimportant, and I Wish finesses his skill in giving seemingly trivial, everyday moments and images a lasting resonance. When the Shinkansen trains finally pass each other and most of the kids shout out their wishes, Koreeda fills the screen with a montage of still-life images from earlier in the film (not necessarily recapitulating earlier shots), and it’s a measure of his success that every one of them is not only instantly recognisable but also poignant or amusing in this new context.
Another measure would be his ability to marshal a large ensemble cast in concise scenes which appear almost random but are in fact precisely engineered to contribute to the bigger picture. Case in point: the interplay/parallels between the grandparents’ activities – Grandma’s ‘expressive dance’ classes, Grandpa’s attempt to bake the kind of Karukan sponge cake he once enjoyed for his group of old codgers – and the children’s play.
The film has the quality of a realist fable, underpinned by strong elements of social commentary. The adult stars, most returning from previous Koreeda movies, contribute expert character sketches which intensify the sociological dimension. But it’s the insight into childhood experience which shines.