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If the witty, offhanded I Wish is a mainly a film for children, it is also the most delightful and uplifting study of kids and families that director Hirokazu Kore-eda has yet put on the plate of adult audiences. Putting aside the subdued melancholy of Nobody Knows or the TV ghost story The Days After, which also screened this year in San Sebastian out of competition, Kore-eda here portrays happy, well-adjusted kids in a film less reminiscent of stately Ozu, to whom he has oft been compared, than bubbly Kitano. The kids are so interesting that their story could go on and on, which it actually does, in an overlong running time topping two hours and a middle section that tends to plane out. Festival audiences will not care; paying arthouse customers may.
Yet rather than meandering, the film is immersed in a magical time that sometimes moves at the speed of a bullet train and sometimes passes very slowly, while Koichi (Maeda Koki) longs for a miracle to bring his family back together. After his parents separated, he moved with Mom to his grandparents’ house on a volcanic island in the south of Japan. He desperately misses his little brother Ryu (Maeda Ohshiro), who lives with Dad in the north. When a new bullet train is announced, Koichi believes the intense energy generated by two trains passing in opposite directions at 170 m.p.h. will work a miracle and grant him his wish.
As effortlessly light as the traditional sponge cake grandpa wants to make in the shape of a bullet train, the story rolls down the tracks on the strength of the enterprising Koichi who, with the complicity of his broad-minded teachers and family, is allowed to skip school and travel with his two best friends to the spot where the trains will pass each other. From the north, peppy little Ryu brings a small army of pals, each with their own lives and desires. The final sequences of the two bands of children roaming the countryside, and finding shelter with an elderly couple, are brilliant filmmaking in every respect.
Delightful in different ways, Maeda Koki of the porcupine hair and Maeda Ohshiro with his perpetual gap-toothed grin are precociously talented, highly expressive real-life brothers who work in a professional comedy duo. Although the adult cast remains in the background, two characters emerge very distinctly: Ohtsuka Nene’s combative young wife and her slacker musician ex-husband (Odagiri Joe), who are refreshingly shown to be good-enough parents despite their divorce.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (competing), Sept. 20, 2011.
Production companies: Shirogumi Inc., BIGX
Cast: Koki Maeda, Oshiro Maeda, Joe Odagiri, Ryoga Hayashi, Seinosuke Nagayoshi
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Screenwriter: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Producers: Kentaro Koike, Hijiri Taguchi
Director of photography: Yamazaki Yutaka
Production designer: Mitsumatsu Keiko
Music: Kisghida Shigeru (Quruli)
Editor: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
Though dominated by the infectious spontaneity of the young actors onscreen, the film is blessed with Kore-eda’s graceful camerawork and natural editing in locations that are at the same time realistic and suggestive of other meanings, like the little boy living in the shadow of an active volcano, or the crisscrossing railway tracks that pull Japan together.
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