Few directors can handle newcomer actors better and more naturally than Hirokazu Koreeda. For his 1998 film After Life, he surveyed 500 people to find the 20 most suitable life stories to work into his script – when it came to casting, most of those 20 people were hired to play themselves, acting out their stories. Because who could tell it better than those who had lived it?
For his latest film I Wish, finally released in the West almost two years after its Japanese premiere, Koreeda wrote the story but held off on scripting dialogue until his two young leads were cast, so he could fluidly work the sort of things these children would say into the characters’ lines. Going one step further, Koreeda cast as the two young brothers a pair of young brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda.
The brothers in the film are separated when their parents split up and each is given the choice to live with the adult of their choosing. Apprehensive Koichi (Koki Maeda) stays with his mother (Nene Otsuka) and her parents in the small city of Kagoshima. The city is forever in the shadow of the A-bomb-like clouds that emit from the semi-active volcano across the bay. These clouds coat Koichi’s neighbourhood and school in a light film of ash most mornings, much to the annoyance of the fussy 12-year-old.
Meanwhile, his younger brother Ryu (Oshiro Maeda), a hyper-active and immensely popular boy, has moved to the far more buzzing city of Fukuoka with their father (Joe Odagiri), a near-deadbeat indie rock musician. The boys communicate in secret via mobile phones, each demonstrating a great love for the other, but also indifference towards the parent of the other’s choosing.
Overlooking the endless fights that broke their parents up, Koichi decides to get them back together, by wishing for the nearby volcano to erupt and literally force his parents to reunite. Ryu, once bitten, is less sure of their compatibility, but decides to help his brother in any way he can. Upon hearing playground gossip that the passing of two bullet trains creates a flash of light that grants wishes, Koichi decides to embark on a miniature quest to find the spot where these trains will pass and make his cosmic request. Ryu agrees to meet him halfway, and both find their friends, who have wishes of their own, tagging along.
Koreeda uncovers remarkable sweetness in his leads, who are normally a duo of young comedians in Japan, and the characters they play are invested with remarkably natural and believable characteristics. Watching Koichi wait at a level crossing, meandering his whole body as he waits impatiently for a train to pass, you realise you are watching a true natural in Koki, a kid who understands how to be a kid and not just act like one. Oshiro’s Ryu, normally bouncing off the walls with juvenile energy, brings out the film’s most dramatic punch when, talking to his mother on the phone, he asks her why she would want to see him when she doesn’t like him. His mother is suitably shocked, but he tells her she always says he is just like his father, and since she doesn’t like his father, she must not like him. The child’s logic is surprisingly strong and simultaneously heartbreaking.
While the story is slight, and Koreeda shows limited visual flair (with some stunning exceptions), the acting and characterisation on display make this a film of great worth and warmth. Beyond the two boys, their friends are brilliantly developed and recognisable as real youngsters. Magumi (Kyara Uchida, excellent) wants to be an actress, but her mother doesn’t believe she has the confidence to succeed in such a cutthroat business. One of the boys fancies the school librarian, while another wants to be a baseball star. Each young actor shows a remarkable appreciation of the character they play, and an understanding of the need to properly flesh them out. In one of the film’s finest sequences, a montage shows the youths practising the talents they want to excel at, showing a desire to grow up; to stop wishing and start trying.
The two brothers find themselves growing up also, sharing with one another the crumbs at the bottom of a bag of crisps, their favourite part, now something to give instead of take. When they meet for the first time in half a year, Ryu comments how tall Koichi seems to have become – standing back-to-back the fraternal bond is deepened as the boys’ frames seem to curl naturally around one another, yet their stance shows how their lives point in different directions.
Full of beautiful, unique and truly human observations, Koreeda’s film is not his masterpiece, but it is still a superb look at the lives and dreams of children that owes as much to De Sica and Truffaut as it does to his hero, Ozu.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)