Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/21/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTwo by Hirokazu Kore-eda:
I Wish (2011)
Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda burst onto the international scene in 1995 with his debut feature MABOROSI before solidifying his position over the following fifteen years with additional art house hits such as AFTER LIFE (1998), NOBODY KNOWS (2004), and STILL WALKING (2008).

Yet, in spite of this admirable track record, Kore-eda remains something of an elusive presence outside of Japan, likely because of his tendency to eschew “safe” material in favor of more personal, idiosyncratic work, seemingly never following a predictable pattern. In short, because Kore-eda is unconcerned with simply producing a single type of film, he has probably never “materialized” in the minds of many Western viewers, which is a shame.

One of the things Kore-eda should be better known for in this country is his ability to work effectively with children. He is the rare filmmaker patient enough to film kids in their element, ensuring that they are not relegated to the role of mere devices in movies that are actually about adults. Kore-eda’s worldview is expansive and his two most recent films illustrate this fact beautifully.

I_WishI WISH tells the story of young brothers Koichi and Ryunosuke, dealing with the unpleasant reality of being separated for the first time in their lives, their parents having recently split up. Sullen Koichi (Kohki Maeda) lives at his grandparents’ house with his mom in Kagoshima, in the shadow of a volcano which daily spews ash into the air. Cheerful Ryunosuke (real-life brother Ohshiro Maeda, with a 1,000-watt smile) lives in Fukuoka with his dad, a slacker who works a menial job and spends much of his time strumming on the guitar and dreaming of rock band success with his bandmates. (Indeed, if anyone comes off as a little childish in this movie it is the parents!)

Koichi and Ryu desperately miss each other and want to reunite their family, when Koichi hits upon a solution, a variation, in fact, on a common Japanese folk belief: if one makes a wish at the point where two trains pass each other at top speed — in this case, a newly-opened bullet train line — the wish will come true. Koichi and Ryu (and assorted friends) concoct a pal, involving saving money and feigning illness to get out of school, to join each other at the crossing point miles and miles away. Meanwhile, Grandpa has a starry-eyed scheme of his own: to start a business manufacturing a traditional Japanese confection, the karukan. Just about everyone in this film is filled with desires and dreams… in short, with wishes.

Instead of following the expected fairy tale trajectories, Kore-eda’s parable of fraternal devotion chugs along at its own pace, never sabotaging the children’s characterizations for saccharine plot turns, the story luffing along like a summer’s breeze. Kore-eda even reserves a stylistic flourish for the climax, a “montage of wishing” which is both unexpected and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is the story of an affluent couple, Ryota and Midori, who are informed that their six-year old boy Keita is not, in fact, their own — there was a mix-up at the hospital at birth — and they, and the parents, Yudai and Yukari, who have been unknowingly raising their boy, Ryusei, must now decide whether to switch back, or….

Like_Father_Like_SonClearly, Kore-eda closely examines the idea of familial bonds and the meaning of family in LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. Also undoubtedly, the scenario seems, on the surface, formulated to maximize the tearjerker potential. The theme of children being separated from their parents is common enough in melodrama and Hollywood history — think of Jackie Coogan being pulled from the arms of the little tramp in the THE KID or Barbara Stanwyck as the quintessential self-sacrificing mother, STELLA DALLAS, bedraggled and standing in the rain, watching her daughter’s wedding through a window from the street — scenes which can be generally counted upon to open the lachrymal floodgates of the audience.

However, Kore-eda again hijacks audience expectations by making the protagonist Ryota the least sympathetic character in the film. Though a crackerjack salaryman in the office, at home he is cold and aloof, an overly-pedantic taskmaster, both to his wife and his son. Kore-eda, in other words, challenges the audience to relate to someone who is a bit of a jerk, while his opposite, Yudai, though provincial, disheveled, and a bit of a loser, seems more the salt of the earth and is revered by his children. Ryota, in fact, is revealed to be the son of a remote and unfeeling father, and he struggles with his impending decision and the conflicting emotions that are awakened within him. Later on in the film, when it is revealed that the switching of the boys was no mere accident but a deliberate act on the part of a wayward hospital employee, Kore-eda defies expectations for a showdown in favor of a far more emotionally measured and realistic outcome.

If anything Kore-eda’s aim in this film seems to be to defer the moment of cathartic emotional release, and not to bring it on, wave after wave after wave. Given the immense emotional power of its material, LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON is remarkably restrained. Such restraint lends the entire film more beauty, and the “moments,” when they do come, more power.