Beneath Cherry Blossoms: I Wish

Published in Metro, Issue 175

 

What a strange thing!

to be alive

beneath cherry blossoms

– Kobayashi Issa

As the end of Hirokazu Koreeda’s gentle, melancholy, I Wish (2011) approaches, two bullet trains speed towards one another as a group of children watch from a hill overlooking the track. They are there to wish as the trains pass each other for the first time. As the moment approaches, Koichi (Koki Maeda), a sturdy, determined twelve-year-old, closes his eyes and the film breathes. Cutting away from the action, Koichi’s drawing of the volcano Sakura-jima (‘Cherry-blossom Island’) rumbles into animated life, spewing bright red paint over the screen. Then a gentle sequence of close-ups unfolds. A pair of red bathers soaking in a sink, feathery clouds high in the blue sky, an old woman’s hands fluttering in a wave, an icy-pole with a firm bite taken out of the corner, some blowzy flowers, and then some photographs of two brothers, fierce grins twinkling, squinting up into the camera.  

In a few short minutes, the sequence captures the richness of life at the heart of I Wish. Koreeda’s everyday is at once a site of domestic routine, petty gossip, disappointment and incomparable beauty. It is a film about brotherly affection, the beauty of nature, and the power of making peace with an everyday that is less than ideal.

Over the past ten years, Koreeda has established himself as a sensitive director of films that explore the interconnectedness of all things. Life and death, grief and joy, dedication and disinterest, fragility and strength, slowness and speed, nature and culture: are all woven tightly together to create a cinema that feels a lot like life. He is perhaps best known for Nobody Knows (2004), a fictionalised account of a true incident in which five children were left alone in a Tokyo apartment, and Still Walking (2008), an exquisite portrait of a family who come together under unhappy circumstances. These two very different films share an even-handed delivery that bestows each event, no matter how big or small, with the same intensity. I Wish has a lighter tenor than its predecessors, but it continues Koreeda’s search for an image in which the borders between the seen and unseen aspects of life are permeable.

Tight-knit brothers Koichi and Ryunosuke, played by real-life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, have been separated by their parents’ divorce. Koichi lives in a small seaside town with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents. His days unfold in an orderly pattern of domesticity, marked by the ever-falling ash from the spluttering Sakura-jima, which hovers on the verge of exploding. His younger brother lives in Osaka, where their father (Joe Odagiri) is giving his dream of becoming a rock star another shot. Ryu is left largely to his own devices and he thrills with the responsibility of housework. He takes care of his dad, waking him up in the morning, buying him dinner and encouraging his career. He keeps his love for his mother alive by growing her favourite beans.

The brothers phone each other frequently but Koichi feels the distance is pulling them apart. His dream is that they all live together again, a prospect that is less appealing to Ryu, who only remembers their parents fighting. Speaking about Still Walking, Koreeda has observed that Japanese families often don’t see each other very much,[1] and Koichi’s anticipation of this kind of estrangement drives the narrative in I Wish.

A new bullet-train line is being built in the area, and when a friend tells him that wishes come true when the trains pass each other for the first time, Koichi is determined to be there. With the help of his friends and with his brother’s reluctant agreement, he plans a trip to the spot where the trains will pass. Koichi’s wish is not that his family will get back together, but that Sakura-jima will erupt, forcing the evacuation of the town. Then, he reasons, he and his mother will have no choice but to return to Osaka and be reunited with his father and brother. Koreeda loves these indirect paths, and the film is full of them. This gives it a meandering narrative structure that reflects the constant diversions of daily life.

Like Still Walking, I Wish explores what it is to be a family across generations. There are similarities here to the grandfather of quiet, domestic cinema, Yasujiro Ozu. Despite their different visual styles, both directors depict the failure of parents and children to understand each other as perceptions of marriage and family change. In I Wish, these missed connections are given a comedic slant. For example, when Koichi tells his mother that Ryu is growing vegetables, Grandmother’s (Kirin Kiki) eyes widen and her breath quickens in alarm. Misunderstanding rock music, she thinks the eight-year-old Ryu must be growing weed. Grandfather (Isao Hashizume) can’t understand why his karukan cake, a rice cake made with Japanese yam, is no longer popular. ‘Karukan cake’s old fashioned,’ his friend tells him. ‘My grandkids won’t touch it.’ ‘Japanese sweets are all healthy nowadays,’ says another. Tastes have changed since grandfather ran a cake shop, and his traditional recipe now seems too subtly flavoured. All the same, his friends encourage him to reopen in order to benefit from the new bullet-train line.

Like Grandfather, Koichi and Ryu find support in their friendship circles. Here they can dream freely, their hopes for the future untainted by their parents’ disappointments. In two successive scenes half an hour into the film, the children share their wishes. We see Koichi and his friends huddled in a narrow tunnel, barely lit by the weak afternoon light that falls in at the mouth, and then we see Ryu’s little gang in the tiny apartment above his friend’s mother’s bar. These scenes are made intimate by close, mobile camera work that reflects the unaffected performances. In contrast with the stillness of Koreeda’s long shots, and of the comedic acting that dominates most of the film, there is an easy, documentary-like feeling to these sequences.

The film unfolds with an even, steady rhythm that is emphasised by the still frontal shots and balanced, almost symmetrical compositions, which are marked by strong horizontal and vertical lines. Towards the end of the film, Koichi gives Ryu one of Grandfather’s karukan cakes. They eat them, dressed in matching white singlets and blue shorts, as they look out into the night. The architraves of the traditional Japanese house and the open screen door behind them form a frame so that they appear as if on a softly lit stage. Later they stand back to back to show how Koichi has grown, and the mood shifts slightly. ‘Mum was crying on the phone,’ says Ryu. ‘Never mind,’ Koichi tells him. ‘She was drunk.’ Ryu agrees to continue to look after his father. ‘Time for bed,’ he says, as if to end the scene. But the camera lingers as they stand back to back in silence, eating their cakes. 

This method of lingering on after the scene has ended recalls the extraordinary endings of John Cassavetes’ films. Think, for example, of the final scenes of Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), where the film keeps rolling as the characters return to their private lives. Framed by walls and doors that recall sets, the everyday gestures of these endings – making a bed, climbing stairs – create an effect of time running on unceasingly. As Effie Rassos observes, it is a presentation of the everyday as time rather than activity.[2] In I Wish, an experience of everyday time emerges through the way routine activity is shown in evenly paced shots that, like the one described above, continue for slightly longer than the action. These tiny moments of dead time hold back the flow of the film, like a musician coming in just after the beat and creating an electrifying tension between what the audience expects to hear and what is actually heard. This pattern of hesitation and release gives form to Koreeda’s thematic concern with time that feels slow, while passing too quickly.

The children all give strong performances, but Koki Maeda steals the film. His face registers what is left unsaid with the slightest of movements. Koreeda’s camera rests on him as he thinks, so that we feel almost as if we can hear Koichi’s thoughts. When he watches his brother on the station as they say goodbye, the tenderness in his expression is heartbreaking. As he smiles and motions Ryu to go and join his friends, the camera turns, and we see Koichi’s back, his shoulders slumped forward in a gesture of loss.

The children go their separate ways, the camera contemplates the view from the train, and a quietness settles over the film. As Koichi and his friends arrive home, the camera looks down over the long run of stairs leading away from the shiny new station and the boys merge into the life of their town. In the final moments Koichi stands on his balcony and watches the smoke rising from Sakura-jima. A curtain flutters in the breeze. He sucks his finger as Grandfather has shown him, and holds it up to the air. ‘It won’t pile up today,’ he says, referring to the volcanic ash, and leaves the frame. The narrative is over, but again, the film goes on, quietly observing the space where Koichi was standing, marked by his cleaning rag pegged to the railing.

 

Endnotes

[1]Jeff Reichert, ‘An Interview with Hirokazu Koreeda’, Reverse Shot, Issue 25, <http://www.reverseshot.com/article/interview_hirokazu_koreeda>, accessed 5 November 2012.

[2]Effie Rassos, ‘Performing the Everyday: Time and Affect in John Cassavetes Faces’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 16, 18 September 2001, <http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/16/john-cassavetes/cassavetes_faces/>, accessed 5 November 2012.