Thursday, May 31, 2012

Adam Hartzell: I Wish

Summer moviegoing in a city like San Francisco doesn't have to mean check-your-brain trips to the mall. Alternative screening venues abound in this town- their schedules linked on my sidebar a click away. I'll make special mention of the particularly strong programming at the Roxie, the Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, and the SF Film Society Screen over the next month or two, before mentioning a pair of special events featuring local musicians picking favorite locally-made films (Foul Play and The Conversation) at the Vogue this weekend. Also opening this weekend? A return-to-form from one of Japan's most internationally-esteemed directors right now, Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Adam Hartzell reviews the new film. All photos courtesy Magnolia Pictures:

It speaks to the power of cinema, and Hirokazu Kore-Eda's story-telling in particular, that the director's latest film had my wife and I changing our minds so quickly with such strong re-commitment.  The morning before we sat down to watch I Wish at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, we had made the difficult decision that traveling to see our family in Japan this summer probably wasn't the best for us financial-wise.  But once the credits closed the film, my wife was first to exclaim, and I was quick to second, "I really want to go to Japan now!"

This is, of course, exactly what the folks of jeki want to hear. jeki, (I've only seen it officially referenced in lower-case), is the East Japan Marketing & Communications advertising group, which is a subsidiary of the East Japan Railway Company.  And jeki partially funded I Wish.  If an international audience wasn't the intent, at least it can be assumed that they hoped to inspire their fellow Japanese citizens to travel to the most southwesterly island of Japan's archipelago, Kyushu.    Although my wife and I won't be heading that far south this time, (we went to Oita during our past visit), we are definitely heading to other prefectures along other railway lines after witnessing this engaging story of kids rallying around something bigger than themselves.

What was it that so transfixed us?  First, a quick plot summary.  The film follows two brothers who are amicably apart after the separation between their mother and father.   The two brother characters, older Koichi and younger Ryonosuke, are played by two real life brothers, Koki and Oshiro Maeda.   Koichi feels stuck in the ash-y air of Kagoshima where an active volcano (Sakurajima) brews and occasionally spews ash, resulting in daily habits particular to Kagoshima residents such as vigorously brushing off the ash upon arrival at school or wetting ones finger to see if ash collects on the upright phalange.   (My wife was born there and these Kagoshima gestures resonated with her memories of visiting her grandmother.)

It appears the younger Ryonosuke got the better deal in the bargain.  He is having the childhood most can only dream of, running around the more bustling Fukuoka with his posse of mostly girls, all while helping sell the merch at concerts for his dad's rock band.  Ryonosuke is truly the hyper one that walks ever so closely towards that annoying line, but never fully crosses it.  The plot consists of the possibility of the family reuniting and Koichi's attempts to assist in this re-cleave post-cleave by conjuring up a story that if you make a wish when two bullet trains pass each other, your miracle (the literal Japanese title of the film) will come true. 

Simply watching the wonderfully expansive train system of Japan and the freedom it provides is advertising enough for someone like me who is stuck in the backward-thinking highway-bounds of a car-dependent nation. But the director's deft story-telling makes sure I Wish is so much more than an ad for the railroad industry.  Kore-eda shows us the joy of watching kids throughout their day, wandering around their respective cities unchaperoned, creating adventures for themselves, from as complicated as their journey to make a wish to as simple as rushing to a favorite food stall.  To me, this was precious without being sickeningly kawaii

In this way, I Wish further solidifies Kore-eda's reputation of being one of the best directors of young actors and actresses.  What particularly transfixed me was just the importance of that less self-conscious time of childhood when if you can dream it, you can do it, at least in your head.  For my wife, it was nostalgia for what her adult self is no longer permitted to enjoy.  She and I can enjoy it vicariously now by watching our nieces engage in these privileges of youth, and by watching I Wish again when it is released this weekend at the Lumiere in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

I cannot recommend I Wish enough, but it is important to point out something missing from the narrative that comes off chasm-atic if you are aware of it, as Japanese citizens would be.  

The opening celebration for the northern section of Kyushu extension noted in the film takes place on the 12th of March, 2011.  This should have been a momentous event that further solidified Japan's forward-thinking in establishing a railway network envied by many.  But the celebration was canceled by an incident of world-wide proportion that happened one day before the opening - the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.   Neither the earthquake, nor the tsunami, nor the nuclear disaster enters into the plot of I Wish.  This can be argued as a major omission.  Even though kids can go about their days without knowing much of the wider world, this was an incident of such devastation to the country it ought to have been mentioned somewhere.

And, arguably, it is indirectly mentioned.  But to flesh this out, I have to ruin the plot.  So your time here is done if you hold onto the view that 'spoilers' spoil a film.  (Recent evidence suggests otherwise.)

But here's some non-plot spoilers regarding how the new northern Kyushu lines connect the dots of the plot.  Koichi is so bummed about living in Kagoshima, he takes one of the things that bothers him about it, the ash-spewing Sakarujima volcano, and melds a fantasy in his mind where an eruption of Sakarujima will force his family to leave Kagoshima.  The wish he plans to plead for once the bullet trains pass is that Kagoshima be destroyed.  Now, Koichi isn't evil in that he hopes people die.  It's just that he's a kid, living in his often selfish world.  If he really thought his wish through, he'd realize folks might die in the process of living his fantasy. 

And Koichi does seem to realize that his dream is selfish, because he lets go of it and doesn't wish for a disaster when the trains pass.  He resolves to accept his present plight and will make the most of life in Kagoshima.  If we read Koichi's disbanded disaster as the triple disaster that actually shook Japan the day before the launch of the new northern Kyushu line, even though neither the earthquake, the tsunami, nor the nuclear plant disaster are mentioned, perhaps that is partly an unspoken motivation for Koichi to relinquish the disaster in his mind.  (The reasons the film presents are more pedestrian, but still virtuous.) 

Unfortunately, this reason for exclusion is not an argument I find too convincing.  It makes me feel like I’m stretching it.  If you are going to place a fictional world within the borders of a real-life event, it's hard to justify silence on a national tragedy.  (By the way, I am not implying at all that jeki encouraged such silence.  And let’s also keep in mind that the funding and story line were probably well solidified prior to the horrible disaster that inflicted Japan.)  Still, I wish Kore-eda would have found a way to make note of what's excised from the narrative.  Such is the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful film.

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