Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Given the wrong children at birth, two sets of parents are left with the overwhelming decision: to exchange their six year-old sons, Keita and Ryusei, re-uniting them with their biological parents, or to choose the child they have raised for six years. Through this tragic occurrence we are given an insight into the lives of the two young boys and their parents.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this film features many of his trademarks, from the focus on family and parenthood, down to minute details of small-talk about fireworks, a sense of the passing seasons, railway crossings, and an instantly recognizable “clean” directorial style. We are undoubtedly in Koreeda’s world once again, and that means nothing short of brilliance. This is by far one of the most heartbreaking of his films, as we witness the tortuous decision the two sets of parents have to make. Every character, mothers, fathers, and children is put through the emotional wringer. Towards the end you cannot help but be moved by the situation they find themselves unwittingly in. The film offers plenty of food for thought, with both sets of parents (particularly the fathers) being very different, one strict and work-orientated, the other carefree and family-focused. This allows for an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the extent to which our lives are pre-destined dependant on our circumstances at birth, as well as many more discussions of parenthood, and in particular fatherhood. The casting and acting is spot-on, and the two young boys do a great job. Needless to say, as with most Koreeda films, the direction and music lead you through the film’s delicately constructed world, leaving little to complain about.

The film does a fine job of giving every character enough time to breath, you feel especially for the mother of Keita, but the real focus is Keita’s father. This hardworking businessman presents a touching portrayal of fatherhood as he struggles to connect with either son. I cannot recommend this film enough. I found it captivating, with believably nuanced characters, poignant story, and fantastic acting.

I Wish (2011)

The story of two brothers separated, one in Kagoshima, one in Fukuoka, after the breakdown of their parents relationship. The elder brother, who lives with his mother and in the shadow of an active volcano that regularly showers the town with ash, wishes for their parents to be re-united, and for their family to live together again. The younger brother, living with his musician father, has no such aspirations, being content with his life.

Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of the family drama, perfectly capturing the subtle complexities of interpersonal relationships, and provoking sympathy without resorting to overt sentimentality. The story, written by Koreeda, hinges around the ‘miracle’ (which is the Japanese title of the film) that occurs when two Shinkansen trains pass one another. It is said that if you witness this and make a wish, it is sure to come true. While this is the only discernible plot, it is clear that it is only a means to an end, providing a motivation for the characters and a reason for following their lives for this short period. Along the way, Koreeda creates such a full, vibrant, and true-to-life world, that the story soon becomes secondary to the characters. This is emphasised by the direction, which takes us to the heart of the drama. One particularly memorable scene is when the children are telling their wishes to each other. It is filmed in the style of an intimate video diary, creating a sense of realism that the rest of the film also strives to capture. The young actors do a fine job, bringing a youthful energy to their roles and the believable hopefulness and naiveté necessary to tell this story. The two brothers are played by real-life brothers, Koki Maeda and Oshiro Maeda. It is said that Koreeda did not complete the script until the actors were cast and this is apparent from the way each of them seem to perfectly embody their characters. I would give equal credit to both the writing and acting in developing rounded characters, who never fall into cliché.

Koreeda films tend to shun typical action and big moments, being less plot-oriented than many others. Instead what he gives you is life itself, without pretence or artifice. Moments of realisation are peppered throughout, just as in life, and his gentle, generally positive outlook on the world is infectious, creating a feel-good film for all. As with other Koreeda films, this feels less like watching characters go through some convoluted plot, but rather it feels like spending time with real people, with their hopes, dreams and fears.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (2017)

After moving to Kamakura, a region known for its many shines and religious historical significance, a young couple start to witness many strange phenomena: a kappa (mythological creature) running through the garden, gods and ghosts are commonplace occurrences. There is a festival attended by anthropomorphic animals. Masakazu Ishiki is a mystery writer and part-time detective, using his skills to solve various cases. When his wife Akiko’s spirt ends up on the ‘otherside’, Masakazu must follow a Shinigami (spirit guide) to rescue her from the large monster there.

A children’s fantasy adventure that has plenty of excitement in the second half after building a sense of wonder and entertaining world in the opening scenes. The story introduces many mythological and fantastical creatures with a sense of magic throughout as well as the relationship between Isshiki and Akiko. The visuals and effects are good throughout and the final part in the otherworld features some amazing world building that is sure to thrill younger audiences. Based on a manga by Ryohei Saigan, director Takashi Yamazaki does a good job of bringing the story to the big screen. The main actors, Masato Sakai as Masakazu and Mitsuki Takahata as Akiko have an enjoyable chemistry together.

An interesting watch for those interested in mythology with a selection famous creatures and characters from Japanese folklore. Especially the central plot of the latter portion of the film that is concerned with the shinigami and the train to the other world. They are portrayed as hardworking business people whose job is to ferry people across to the fantastical ghost world. This is a fun take on these staple characters. The film is clearly aimed squarely at a younger audience and is largely concerned with creating a visually appealing magical world for the characters to play in. In this regard it is certainly an entertaining distraction.

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

The film begins with a brief introduction telling the tale of a fantastical land of animals, whose great warriors fight for the prize of becoming the new lord. When these animal lords pass away they become new gods. We are then introduced to a young human boy Ren, whose parents are recently divorced. Feeling frustrated he runs away and ends up living on the streets of Shibuya. Ren is discovered by an anthropomorphic bear and monkey. Following them he finds his way into the animal world. The bear turns out to be the legendary fighter Kumatetsu who must do battle with the boar Iozen. Kumatetsu decides to take Ren in as his disciple, renaming him Kyuta (a play on him being 9 years old). Kumatetsu is slovenly, arrogant and a terrible teacher, being self-centred and stubborn. However, Kyuta soon begins to learn from him, and he from Kyuta. When Kyuta returns to the world of humans he must make a difficult choice to leave Kumatetsu, his surrogate father, behind and return to his real father and his real life, or to support him in his most difficult hour.

Written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children) the film is a poignant exploration of masculinity and fatherhood. Though their relationship is dysfunctional there is affection between Kyuta and Kumatetsu. Each lacks the emotional intelligence to express themselves verbally, but nevertheless they provide support for each other, complimenting the others’ weaknesses. In the case of Kumatetsu it is his inability to listen or learn from others, in Kyuta’s case it is his lack of strength or self belief. The animation in the early portions of the film takes us on a journey through the dark back alleys of Tokyo, with abandoned bikes, the eerie glow of vending machines, as well as the bright lights of Shibuya’s famous crossing. When it moves to the world of animals there is a definite shift in tone to a more lighthearted art and animation style. This works fantastically well in creating a definite intersection between reality and fable. What Ren learns in the fantastical world of Kumatetsu is a good way to explore what might be difficult themes in a human drama. There is plenty of humour and clowning here that captures a childlike sense of joy and wonder while at the same time not shying away from the seriousness of what Ren is experiencing.

The central theme of the film is that of a father son relationship. Through Kumatetsu and Ren’s fraught experiences with one another they both grow to appreciate having a surrogate parent or child. Kumatetsu’s violent outbursts are softened by his characterisation as a bear creating a safe way to explore themes of parental aggression. We learn to sympathise with both Ren and Kumatetsu and understand why both act the way they do, while also willing them to resolve their differences. At the end there are touching moments later in the film when you realise that their anger is a sign of affection. The film also deals with themes of strength and masculinity, particularly in relation to Ren’s journey to becoming a man. It asks the question of what true strength is, whether physical or emotional, and how important that is for surviving life’s hardships. This is an important film for understanding not only the stresses that divorce and separation from a parent can have on a child, but also offers a male perspective on how to deal with these issues.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

Anna is withdrawn and anxious. Isolated from her classmates, she takes solace in her drawings. After an asthma attack her foster mother sends her off to the countryside, believing that the cleaner air will do her some good. While there Anna discovers a mysterious house and meets another young girl, Marnie, with whom she becomes good friends. The house has been abandoned for a long time and it is clear early on that Marnie may not be real. Dreams, memory and reality are blended together as Anna slowly uncovers the details of Marnie’s past and subsequently reveals something about herself too.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, with the action transposed to Japan. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted a beautiful film that will speak to many people. Anna is a character that you are immediately drawn to, though without overly sentimentalising her experiences. She suffers social anxiety, asthma, and we learn early on that she does not smile a lot. This is due to the death of her parents at an early age, something that has left her feeling isolated and disconnected from the world. The film does a great job of showing how she grows and learns to cope with this childhood trauma. The animation is spectacular. From the opening sequence of a busy play park there is a vibrancy and life to everything that happens. As with many Ghibli films the natural world is as much of a character as everyone else. In this film the effects on the sea are mesmerising with the added importance of the sense of receding tides tying into the themes of the film. There were also a number of techniques used to perfectly capture what was happening such as the faces of Anna and Marnie being overlaid at one point to show their similarities.

When Marnie Was There is a film about loss and memory, regret and redemption. The themes are subtly introduced in the guise of a mystery story and never overplayed. While it deals with serious issues there is humour introduced throughout, and in the latter parts the character of Sayaka seems introduced purposefully to help counterbalance the tragedy. This is another classic from studio Ghibli. While it lacks some of the whimsy of their more fantastical films, it is a powerful emotional drama that reaches a satisfying resolution.