We've just watched a Japanese movie called I Wish. That's the English title, of course (in Japanese the film is called Miracle). The cover quotes the New York Daily News, who says it's Extraordinary. The Guardian calls it A Gem of World Cinema. And there are more lines from other sources telling us how brilliant and revelatory and delicate and observant it is....and so on.
Well, it's quite a delight, but extraordinary it isn't. Its script is very loose, and the long-awaited 'miracles' at the end of the movie turn out to be something of a fizzer. Sure, there's a more settled feeling in the air amongst those participating as the credits roll, but to all intents and purposes, life goes on pretty much as before.
The film is about two young brothers (perhaps eight and ten, and played by real life brothers) who live in separate cities, one with his mother and grandparents, the other with his muso father. The father is the 'problem' according to the mother, and there's a brief flashback about halfway through showing what life was like for all members of the family before the split. The two boys have telephone contact with each other, and after it's announced that the new bullet train will be starting up in a couple of months' time, the boys decide on asking for a miracle at the moment when the northbound train passes the southbound train. Quite why this is significant isn't clear, but then a lot of things in the movie aren't clear: you just accept them because you don't have a choice. The director, Kore-Eda Hirokazu, isn't into explaining things. Certainly you can pick up most points in some measure - and no doubt there's a bit of a cultural gap to cross - but Hirokazu just drops stuff before us and shows us something and leaves us to deal with it. Because the movie has an immense amount of natural charm, and because the younger boy in particular is an absolute delight, with a face that lights up at the drop of a hat, and because there's no real villain in the picture, or any sense of an evil world out there (even the smoking volcano is fairly benign) you enjoy the movie as it wends its quiet way along (it's 128 minutes). There's enough of a story to keep us interested, and the performances from the kids - the two young leads, their assorted companions, and various other children who get a few seconds of screen time - are so natural and enjoyable that the fact that there's little else going on barely matters.
There are a number of adults in the picture, but their lives are almost secondary to the children's, and for the most part they're a pretty amiable lot (the squabble flashback between the parents is the only grim note in the piece). The two grandparents (a taciturn grandfather and a grandmother with lots of hand-me-down information) and the elderly couple who suddenly find themselves landed with seven children late in the movie, are genial and pleasant people. Even the grandfather's drinking companions are played more for comedy than anything else. Compare the elderly people in some older Japanese movies, such as Ozu's Tokyo Story, for a quite different picture of the older generation.
The film doesn't disappoint, in spite of the hype on the cover. If you're prepared to take the movie as it comes, you'll enjoy it. Much of what happens skims across the surface like a breeze. And perhaps that's the director's intention. At one point, the father says to his younger son: "There's room in this world for wasteful things. Imagine if everything had meaning. You'd choke." A lot of the detail in this film is trivial, seemingly unimportant; even the events are small-scale. But the father's point is that not everything has to be significant - children, for instance, are often seen as unimportant - and Hirokazu has managed to make something of considerable value out of 'wasteful' things.