While the Oscars, Baftas and countless other award ceremonies scream and shout for attention, life goes on for the films and film makers not boisterous enough to be awarded with a golden prize. One such film quietly tiptoed into UK cinemas this February – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish. The Japanese director has been plying his trade with quiet aplomb in his home country, turning out a number of excellent family dramas such as Still Walking and After Life. Often described as the heir to Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-eda excels at creating naturalistic and observational depictions of modern family life that do away with any hysteria.
I Wish, like some of his previous films, focuses on children rather than adults. Koichi and Ryunosuke are two brothers living apart in a broken family; Koichi lives with their mother and her parents in Kyushu, while Ryunosuke decides to live with his father in Hakata. Despite the slightly unusual situation, Kore-eda deigns not to dramatise this domesticity in the opening set-up of the film. It just is. Koichi, the older of the two, is desperate to reunite the family. Despite the presence of his two school friends, he leads a boring, sanitised existence with his mother and grandparents. Ryunosuke, however, is a live-wire, enjoying the freedom of his fathers lax lifestyle and the attention of his girl friends.
A flicker of hope arrives for Koichi when news of a new train line between the two cities arrives. The two brothers set about concocting a plan to meet midway, and visit the place where the rail line intersects. There, they can make their wish. The question is, what do they really want most in life? That is the main theme running through the film. Kore-eda creates an interweaving ensemble of characters with their own fears, hopes and desires; from the schoolgirl who wants to be an actress to the grouchy grandad trying to perfect his sponge cake. Kore-eda’s skill lies in his ability to make the audience empathise with the plight of all his characters, even with little screen time.
The film hinges however, on the two brothers performances. Koki and Oshiro Maeda are two precocious siblings who were discovered by the film makers as two budding comedians hoping to become famous, and I Wish will surely cement those dreams. They have a natural chemistry, and can move from drama to light comedy with ease. Much of their interaction at the beginning of the film relies on the use of phones; they talk to each other after school while their parents are away. Their conversations are childish but deeply moving, as they learn little details of how the other is learning and growing without the other.
Kore-eda uses a mixture of static shots and handheld camera to give an observatory feel, and the gentle folk soundtrack moves the scenes along rather than for sentimental cues. The Japanese director makes pains not to sentimentalise the story, which makes the quieter revelatory moments all the more moving. For Kore-eda, less is more. On the surface I Wish is a gentle, innocent film about childhood and coming of age, but beneath that lies some serious lessons about responsibility and compromise.