Posted by martinteller on August 19, 2014
12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) and grandparents (Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki) in the town of Kagoshima. Kagoshima exists in the shadows of a volcano that is continually spewing ash, although no one but Koichi seems particularly concerned about it. Koichi’s younger brother Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) lives with their father (Jô Odagiri), a struggling rock musician, far away in Fukuoka. Koichi dreams of bringing his family back together again. Then he hears about a new bullet train. It is rumored that when it passes another bullet train for the first time, it creates a magical field that would grant a wish to anyone who witnesses it. He arranges to meet Ryu at the spot where this is scheduled to occur. Koichi’s wish? That the volcano will erupt, forcing everyone to leave and driving his mother back into his father’s arms.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is fixated on fractured families the way Alfred Hitchcock was fixated on murder. The way Ritwik Ghatak was fixated on the partition of India. The way Wes Anderson is fixated on… well, also fractured families. It is a theme that appears to one degree or another in most of the films I’ve seen by him. And more power to him, it’s a subject he handles with great insight and sensitivity, without pummeling the viewer with trumped-up drama. Even when dealing with heavy subject matter, as in Nobody Knows, he always has a light touch. This is one of the lighter ones, though I don’t mean that as a strike against it. Indeed, it’s one of the movie’s best assets.
The movie has a leisurely but not slow pace. The story is always winding towards the meeting of the trains, but it doesn’t rush there. Rather, it skips there, taking hops along the way to peek into the lives of these characters. And it’s not solely concerned with Koichi and Ryu. The grandfather is trying to perfect a recipe for a traditional cake. Ryu’s friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida) wants to be an actress, but watches a more ambitious classmate steal the limelight… and the jobs. Koichi’s friend Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi) cares for his elderly dog (as someone who recently lost a canine companion, this subplot moved me quite a bit). We see the children talk about their problems, plan their journey, and run (and run and run… I remember having that much energy once) around. There is a fantastic attention to detail, picking out the moments that resonate. Many of these details return in one of the finest montages I’ve seen in a long time.
Kore-eda’s direction of the children is magnificent. Not just the two kids in the leads (real-life brothers), but also the gaggle of friends they associate with. Their performances are so natural and genuine that I imagine they were given a lot of room to improvise. Children in most movies (not just American movies, though it does seem especially endemic here) often come off as smaller versions of ourselves, having adult reactions to things and making adult statements beyond their wisdom. It’s always a treat to see children be children, not precocious delusions of what we imagined ourselves to be at that age. Most of the time, these kids sound like real kids. In the rare moments when they don’t, it’s both earned and poignant.
It’s also a very funny movie, with wonderful bits of light humor. The soundtrack by Quruli is upbeat but unobtrusive, aiding in the breezy feel of the film. It’s a gentle hug of a movie, with a lot of sweetness and just enough melancholy reality to make it hit home. Like most of Kore-eda’s pictures, it hovers around the 2-hour mark, but I could have easily spent another hour with these characters, and this simple but endearing look into their lives. It’s a very lovely and touching piece of work. This currently stands as my favorite by Kore-eda, but that may just be indicative of a need to go back and revisit his other films. I certainly do like his style. Rating: Very Good (87)