Here is a film from a director who deserves the title of ‘Contemporary Master’ because of his skill in constructing stories rich in everyday details. Several of his films have unusual stories at their centre, but each set of characters is presented without anything other than seemingly simple observation. We learn a great deal about life in Japan from these details and have our faith in the future re-established by depictions of family relations that promise nothing spectacular but still have a profound effect on most audiences – they make them feel better about the world.
Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films sometimes take a long time to get to the UK and some never get here at all. In this context it was good to see I Wish in UK cinemas in March (even if his new film was just about to be announced for Cannes in May). I was lucky to see the film a couple of times but unable at the time to post to the blog. Now it has been released on DVD in the UK I’ve dug out the notes I made for an introduction to a screening in Bradford.
Kore-eda Hirokazu (born 1962)
Kore-eda went first into television documentary production, eventually emerging as a director in 1991. It would be another four years before he made his first fiction feature Maborisi for cinema release in 1995. He has now completed seven further fiction features. His documentary training is evident in certain scenes in I Wish in which children seem to be answering an interviewer’s questions – this appears natural rather than artificial.
Kore-eda’s themes are primarily concerned with families and relationships. This and his seemingly slow contemplative approach have seen him compared to Ozu Yasujiro and it is certainly possible to spot similarities between the two directors’ work. But Kore-eda does not use the same stylistic features that are familiar from Ozu’s later work. A more useful comparison is likely to be with the two leading figures of the Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. In particular, critics have discussed I Wish in terms of the Edward Yang film Yi Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) which also focused on three generations of a family – with each family member facing their own problems.
The incident that ‘kicks off’ the narrative in I Wish is the separation of two brothers after their parents split up. The older Koichi lives with his mother and her parents and the younger Ryu lives with his father – the boys are separated physically by some 200 miles but they speak to each other by ’phone virtually every day. The title of the film in Japanese actually translates as ‘miracle’ but there is nothing religious about this. Instead it refers to a rumour about something that might happen when the first Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) service along the West coast of the island of Kyushu began in 2011. Kore-eda was approached to make a film using this event. This is reminiscent of the British film by Shane Meadows, Somers Town in 2008, which constructed its narrative around the opening of the new Eurostar station at St. Pancras. Kore-eda received some support from the railway company, but there is no suggestion that the film is a form of advertisement for the railway (something which dogged Meadows).
Family life in Japan
One of the clichés about Japanese culture as viewed from the West is that Japan is a mix of tradition and modernity – and that this extends into family relations. What is certainly true is that many of the films that reach the UK feature families that have ‘broken up’ and that this is represented as a social problem to a much greater extent than in the UK – partly because the different legal system in Japan means that one divorced parent is often excluded from a relationship with their child. The ‘Ring cycle’ of ghost stories focuses on the single mother – child relationship as does the associated film Dark Water (Japan 2002). In an earlier Kore-eda film, Nobody Knows (2004), a single mother tells one of her children that he must expect to be bullied at school because he doesn’t have a father. On the other hand, Japanese attitudes towards children and parental control often seem surprisingly ‘liberal’ compared to those in the UK.
The extended Japanese family
One of the fascinations for UK audiences in Japanese family-based films might be the sense that Japanese society has already begun to experience some of the profound changes in demographics and socio-economic factors that are likely to be so important in the UK over the next few years. As the UK enters a ‘triple-dip’ economic recession we might look at Japan where such conditions have lasted for over twenty years since the early 1990s. The result is a struggling generation of thirty to fifty year-olds with little job security and possibly a sense of wasted lives. At the same time, Japan has developed an ageing population structure with a low birth rate not balanced by the same levels of incoming migrants as the UK. Three generations face different problems but now find themselves in the same households, partly through economic necessity. Kore-eda provides us with narrative strands which at least open up some of these issues in relation to parents and grandparents, but still retain the central focus on the children. In I Wish we see the children and the grandparents as active and imaginative in the schemes they hatch (separately) while the parents are the ones trapped by their circumstances.
Kore-eda Hirokazu is an ‘artisanal’ filmmaker who has a small group of collaborators and who makes his films over a long period rather than working for a major studio. He uses many of the same actors in each film with occasional better-known lead figures. Odagiri Jô, who plays the musician father, is an actor from independent and international cinema. These actors will be more prepared for the Kore-eda approach. His work with children requires a long casting period. I Wish depends to a great extent on the performance of the real life Maeda brothers – who were already established as a comedy duo when Kore-eda found them. He subsequently re-worked the script to make the most of their exceptional qualities.
Kore-eda accepted this project partly because of his interest in films about children and partly because of a love of railways, He also had a great-grandfather from the city of Kagoshima at one end of the line. The Japanese are proud of their railway system (developed as an amalgam of British and American ideas – Japan drives on the left and trains similarly run on the left) and it is another feature of Ozu’s cinema. The first Shinkansen trains ran in 1964. “I Wish” UK governments had had the same foresight!
I was entranced by this film. I think most people who have seen will agree that however you felt when you started watching it, by the end you will better about yourself and about the world. One of my friends described it as ‘gossamer light’. I know what he meant but this isn’t something that would blow away in a wind. Somehow it is both ‘light’ and ‘substantial’.
At some point I’m going to try and go back and watch the earlier films that I haven’t had time to watch properly. Still Walking and Air Doll are both on the blog already. Kore-eda has few equals in contemporary cinema, so don’t miss out!