Children have always played an important role in the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s films. His career started off with the documentary Lessons from a Calf (1991), which follows a group of students as they raise a calf together as a class, and he continued to solidify his reputation as a director who “is especially mindful of the need to do justice to the child’s reality” through films like Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and After the Storm (2016). 1
Koreeda’s I Wish (2011) can be seen in a similar light alongside these films. At the core of the film is the story of two brothers (played by real life brothers Kôki Maeda and Ohshirô Maeda) who live in separate parts of Japan because their parents are separated. The elder brother, Koichi, lives with his mother and grandparents whilst the younger brother, Ryu, lives with his father. As time passes, Koichi’s wish of reuniting the family becomes more distant till he hears – and witnesses – that at the very moment when two trains pass by each other, something magical happens and wishes come true. Koichi and Ryu, along with their friends, decide to test this theory and travel on their own to a place where two bullet trains meet so that their dreams and desires can be fulfilled.
The film’s narrative is driven – forcefully – by the performances of the children. In one scene, Koichi and his two friends are in class, and as Koichi reads a passage, his breathing gets increasingly heavier. His eyes roll back a little and he collapses back into his chair, faint, provoking and encouraging concern from the audience of the film. Moments later, the audience finds out that he is merely “faking it”. This idea of “faking it” recurs throughout the film, as the children put on an act in front of people and then proceed to dismantle the same act moments later; in effect, through the documentary-like filmmaking techniques, the audience never quite knows whether the child actor is acting, or merely being themselves. In fact, Roger Ebert, in his review of I Wish, was keen to highlight the children’s extraordinary showmanship. He writes:
You can’t tell actors, especially young ones, to “act happy” and expect them to do it. They must in some essential way be happy. Here they’re filled with the energy and hopes of childhood, their smiles are quick and open, laughter comes easily, and they seem to run everywhere, as if they never learned to walk.2
Implicit in Ebert’s statement is the notion that the children occupy this uneasy relationship between “acting” and “being”, which I find a helpful framework to think about the ideas raised in I Wish.
Ebert’s point echoes Karen Lury’s understanding of the child actor on screen as that of a paradox. Lury writes that the greatest risk that the child actor presents to the audience in cinema “is that they confuse or threaten the understanding of what acting or performing is, and how it can be distinguished from not-acting or from “being”.”3 This risk of not-knowing attached to the performing child, Lury observes, is usually largely mitigated by the fragmentation of the filming process, where actors only perform for a few minutes (or seconds) for each take, and the director and editor stitch the shots together into a final product. Viewed from this perspective, actors – not least child actors – have very little control over their performances.
Contrarily, I would suggest that Koreeda embraces this risk wholeheartedly through his filmmaking techniques. Drawing from his background as a documentary filmmaker, Koreeda explains the way he works with children: “It’s the same way with documentaries – you’re trying to get their reactions. I’m not calling them over and giving them directions. Instead I’m adapting to their expressions and movements.”4 In I Wish, Koreeda trains his camera on the children and observes. In one scene, Koreeda’s camera follows Ryu in a wide-angle shot as he runs round the field trying to catch a dragonfly, giving the boy space to breathe and have fun. In another scene, individual children are positioned in the middle of the shot looking slightly off-frame to their friends – very much like that of a talking-head interview – as they share their deepest desires and wishes. The camera lingers on the children, allowing the children time to think, contemplate and process their thoughts before sharing it with everyone else. Koreeda works with – not against – the risk of unexpected performances and, in turn, allows the inner worlds and subjectivities of children to surface.
This embrace of uncertainty is further reflected in the film’s mise-en-scène and narrative. The Sakurajima volcano sits, looming, in the background for most parts of the film silently spewing ashes into the air; a deadly eruption could occur at any moment, threatening the lives of those who live near it. Yet, life carries on for everyone in the film. In a similar vein, the children make their way to the spot where the bullet trains meet without any adult supervision, risking the danger of being apprehended by a police official. Likewise, the grandfather attempts to update his traditional sponge cake to the present day’s taste buds, in the hope of making a bit of money to help his family post-retirement – even as the other characters seem to find the sponge cakes a bit of an acquired taste. Risk, the danger or possibility of not-knowing, then, permeates through the fabric of the film in major and minor ways. This is encapsulated by the title of the film (Kiseki, or miracle, is the original Japanese title) because wish-making itself is a risk – a highly important one that drives life forward – and as the bullet trains pass by each other, the film culminates in an explosive montage as the realities and subjectivities of the children expand to all the wishes of the characters in the film: to draw; to dance; to run; to act; to bake; to love; to live.
I Wish (2011 Japan)
Prod Co: Bandai Visual Company, Chugoku Broadcasting (RCC), East Japan Marketing & Communications Inc. Prod: Kentarô Koike, Satomi Odake, Hijiri Taguchi Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda Phot: Yutaka Yamazaki Ed: Hirokazu Koreeda Prod Des: Mitsumatsu Keiko Mus: Kisghida Shigeru
Cast: Kôki Maeda, Ohshirô Maeda, Nene Ohtsuka, Joe Odagiri, Kirin Kiki, Isao Hashizume, Hiroshi Abe, Kyara Uchida, Rento Isobe, Chôei Takahashi, Seinosuke Nagayoshi, Ryôga Hayashi
- Arthur Jr. Nolletti, “Kore-eda’s Children: An Analysis of Lessons from a Calf, Nobody Knows, and Still Walking,” Film Criticism 35 (Winter/Spring 2011): p. 148. ↩
- Roger Ebert, “I Wish,” http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/i-wish-2012 ↩
- Karen Lury, The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), p. 151. ↩
- Hirokazu Koreeda in Mark Schilling, “Kore-eda Hirokazu Interview,” Film Criticism 35 (Winter/Spring 2011): p. 14. ↩