It is definitely worth watching if you don’t mind ninety minutes of intelligent, sensitive, involving but not exactly compelling action, in order to get to the pay off about half an hour from the end. (I don’t mean this as a criticism of the film, but if this is not what you are looking for, then you really shouldn’t rent this – it’s in Japanese with subtitles, so you have to concentrate on it a bit.)
Koichi and Ryu, twelve and ten years old, and are played by real life brothers, from whom director Hirokazu Koreeda coaxes incredibly authentic performances. The careful and methodical Koichi lives with his mother and her parents. He attends school as most of us imagine it to be in Japan: traditional, grey, and where no-one else in the class will admit to not having a dad. The younger brother, Ryu attends a more colourful, liberal school, where his friends are child actors and aspiring artists. He has chosen to live with his musician father in a ramshackle arrangement, depiction of which includes a few insights into the Japanese music scene. The presence of Ryu is a reason for persevering through the first ninety minutes. He runs everywhere, is always smiling, and is full of energy and love and enthusiasm for everything.
The brothers talk to each other on the phone, but have not seen each other for six months. Koichi hears about a point where two high speed trains meet each other in opposite directions, and that when this happens, there is an energy produced that can make magical things happen. Each brother sets out with a group of friends with the goal of converging on this point.
This middle part of the film is quite strange and almost surreal – a band of children wandering round by themselves, no questions asked. It gets stranger still when the children are almost rumbled, but then manage through luck and ingenuity to get their way out of trouble. Some might find the solution, and the scenes that follow this, contrived and unrealistic, but I thought it was gentle and restrained enough not to be.
When the children reached the end of their journey, I cried. The children were so wise in their conclusions, and showed so much care and thoughtfulness towards others. This is the side of being a child that we forget. The tenderness, hope, the willingness to care, the willingness to do things for other people. It was magical.