Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells a quiet, charming story from within the contained world of childhood, as two brothers of junior-school age try to comprehend the adults around them and fix their parent’s marriage by travelling to a place where Japan’s bullet trains pass each other at great speed– an event rumoured among the classmates to create a supernatural force that can grant wishes.
Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) and Kenji (Jô Odagiri) are the recently separated parents of Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) and Koichi (KokiMaeda), split over Kenji’s relaxed attitude to earning enough money to support his family, preferring to pursue his dream of playing in his band. Nozomi lives with her retired parents, taking the older Ryu with her. Kenji gets to look after the younger, Koichi, living in a town distant enough that the boys’ only contact with each other is through regular calls on their brightly-coloured mobile phones after swimming practice or at home in the evenings.
The performances from the two boys are of pure naturalism, and their relationship captivating to watch because they are really brothers. I adored Koichi’s optimistic, insatiable happiness. There is a joyful scene as he arrives at school and runs through the playground high-fiving friends and shouting, “Good morning!” Next viewed from the corridor, he then disappears into his classroom with another cheery “Good morning!” and the whole class answers him back with gusto. He clearly inspires instant happiness.
Ryu is a more solid, thoughtful character who comes up with the plan to travel to the bullet train tracks to make the wish, and who galvanizes his friends to find the money necessary.He seems to bear more weight on his shoulders than his brother, perhaps due to his older years making him more aware of what was lost. In a flashback scene to a one-sided argument between his parents, Nozomi throws fried octopus balls at the inert Kenji who has been silent to her admonishments. Ryu seems to try and stop the food fight, but Koichi grabs his plate of food and walks away into close-up to save his dinner from the melee, stuffing his little cheeks like a hamster. He seems impervious, and later in the film – during a phone call with his mother – a moment of his innocent, childlike logic reduces her to tears.
There’s a point in life where we start to see our parents as children and treat them accordingly, and the idea of children taking on the mantle of responsibility to save their parents from themselves is a universal one in storytelling (in popular culture: Back to the Future and Star Wars come to mind). The sentiment of putting away childish things surfaces as the boys sell their toys and comic books to fund their mission. However, wishing is a childish notion and they are ultimately children trying to solve an adult problem.
Kore-eda’s deft “less is more” direction works so well, a minimal sensibility that other film reviewers have, quite rightly, compared to the Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu (see Tokyo Story), famous for capturing the milieu of everyday life in Japan. The naturalism is hypnotic and I felt I was watching real children on a real adventure beyond their actual family homes, as they became aware of their place in the world of their parents and grandparents. Heartwarming without sickly sentiment, this is a beautiful piece of cinema I would love to see again.
Incidentally, there was a timely coincidence between a news story at the time of viewing the film and the sashimi of choice that young Koichi asks for on more than one occasion. It caused a few more laughs than perhaps Kore-eda intended.