Notes from the LFF: I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Japanese Cinema, Uncategorized

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film looks set not to get distribution in the UK. Or at least does not have any at time of writing. For this reason, I wanted to see it at the 2011 London Film Festival.

Indeed, avoiding premières of films that I shall no doubt see in the fullness of time seems low down on my agenda of trying to see films at this year’s festival. Rather, I have tried to see films I am unlikely to see (on a big screen, at any rate) anywhere but here.

Kiseki/I Wish is a light-hearted tale of separated brothers, Koichi and Ryu, the former of whom lives with his grandparents and mother, the latter of whom lives with his dad, who is lead singer in a band.

Like Hirokazu’s previous Dare mo shiranai/Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004), this film is about family – in particular disrupted families that struggle to stay in touch in spite of the prevalence of mobile telecommunications technologies (which feature prominently in the film).

Furthermore, given I Wish’s interest in inter-generational relationships, the film also shares common ground with Aruitemo aruitemo/Still Walking (Japan, 2008), not least because this films shares Still Walking’s lighter tone, not least in its characters’ forging of friendships in spite of adversity, while Nobody Knows is comparatively gruelling in its vision of abandoned Japanese children.

Koichi is studying in Kagoshima under the shadow of a permanently smoking volcano, about which no one seems to be doing anything (like running away in case of eruption).

It becomes hard not to consider the threat of natural disaster as supremely ironic in the light of the recent Tōhoku earthquake. And yet, in spite of these parallels, the possibility of natural disaster seems to function more metaphorically here.

That is, Koichi takes the volcano himself as a symbol for his frustration at being separated from his brother, and at his parents’ separation in general.

He and Ryu – and friends – decide to meet up to wish for a miracle, a miracle that will come to pass if they are at the spot where two Shinkansen/bullet trains cross paths on the line between Kagoshima and Fukuoka, the town where Ryu lives with his dad.

The Shinkansen functions as a symbol of hope: perhaps humans and their astounding ability for technological progress will sidestep the dangers that living in/with nature seems to entail.

However, more fitting – for me – would be a recognised synthesis of man and nature. That is, the volcano and the bullet train both can share the same world, a world that Koichi eventually, if ambiguously, wishes for instead of the reunion of his parents.

Ryu, who is all of eight years of age (Koichi is perhaps ten or eleven), upbraids his father – as his mother has done – for not being responsible enough towards his children as he pursues his dream of being a rock star. The father is not without success, but childhood neglect does seem to be a prevalent issue, both for Ryu and for Koichi, whose mother goes out with old school friends instead – arguably – of looking after her son.

Grandparents, both Ryu and Koichi’s real ones and an old couple with whom they stay on their Shinkansen pilgrimage, step in to help this young generation.

However, the film does not seem to offer an outright critique of the middle generation. Not only is the film relatively sympathetic towards them (there are no villains in this film), but they also seem to be prey to circumstances that are in part beyond their control.

Koichi and Ryu’s mother takes a job at a supermarket, a job about which she is ashamed given that most of her peers have better jobs and pay (or so she says). Their father, meanwhile, pursues his childhood dream, as mentioned.

One gets a sense of how one must choose between family and a career, be that a supposedly ‘infantile’ desire like becoming a rock star, or having a ‘better’ job than supermarket shift work.

To choose family seems to preclude great financial success. Furthermore, to pursue independence as an artist (the father’s music is described as ‘indy,’ which Koichi explains to Ryu as meaning that one ‘has to work harder at it’ than a mainstream success) seems also to get in the way of family.

Since the film does not judge the parents, the question becomes: what kind of a world is it that we live in such that the following choices become our only options: either you make money, or you pursue your dream, or you have a family?

There is no definite answer to this question, except perhaps that this simply is the world we live in, and perhaps it is better to have this world than no world at all – the ‘lesson’ that Koichi seems to learn as the film progresses.

There is a scent of the global financial crisis underwriting I Wish, which does the arguably clichéd trick of having children pronounce the most profound wisdom. But if it is a question of economics that has shaped the kind of world in which the above are the only available options, then perhaps the wilfully naïve thoughts of children can be recognised as a return to insightful simplicity in an era that preens itself like a misunderstood romantic on account of its own forced complexity.

The real complexity here is not forced; it is the natural emergence of a community regardless of what else the world (and humanity) throws in its (own) path.

The film is shot with Hirokazu’s characteristic handheld camera, allowing his performers to live on the screen, together with relatively common long shots that also ensure that his characters are contextualised in a world characterised by competing technologies and temporalities, dreams and desires.

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