It's always nice when a director manages to exceed expectations. I didn't go into Katsumi Sasaki's When You Wish upon a Star [Hoshi ni Negai wo] thinking I was going to bump into a bona fide masterpiece, though I was quite eager to find out what else the man had up his sleeve. Turns out he is capable of much more than stylized genre shock. So far the film hasn't found official international distribution yet, so getting your hand on a subtitled version will be a real hassle. Still, fingers crossed that this is only a temporary oversight to be fixed in the near future.
Sasaki had proved himself an interesting horror director before, garnering niche attention with his Mukuro horror anthology. This anthology brought together three of his horror shorts, taking on different horror niches not so prevalent in Japanese cinema. With When You Wish Upon a Star he didn't fully turn his back on the horror genre, but his focus has shifted towards drama, with additional genre elements added to create a more powerful impact. Mind you, this is nothing like the sweet and polished dramas Japan tends to produce, on the contrary.
They're not quite as common maybe, but Japan also has a tradition and reputation when it comes to angsty and angry dramas, usually taking place in urban settings and sporting fringe characters who thrive on the outskirts of society. This World of Ours and Noise are two notable examples, and I believe When You Wish upon a Star has earned its place as one of the frontrunners of this little niche. The biggest difference with those films is that Sakaki mixes in various elements from other genres, most notably horror and mystery, but there's even time for some goofy comedy too.
Eve is a young girl trying to deal with past trauma. She was abandoned by her mother, she never knew her father and she ended up working as a prostitute to get through life. She has a returning dream where she murders one of her old school pals, a grizzly affair that leaves her shaken whenever she wakes up. For that reason, she goes to see a shrink, who slowly starts digging into Eve's past. Doing so, she brings the evil that is locked up deep inside Eve into the real world. Meanwhile, Eve's dad is still on the lookout for his daughter, determined to find her.
When You Wish Upon a Star is an indie film, so it's not looking quite as polished, especially when comparing it to more traditional, mainstream Japanese dramas. It doesn't need to though, because the gritty plot benefits from a less polished look. And Sasaki exploits that pretty well, going for more animated camera work, cool camera angles, and some oldskool special effects. There's a balanced guerilla vibe here that feels just right. The look of the film is competent and doesn't just hide its low budget very convincingly, it even draws power from it, which deserves praise.
The soundtrack is good, though not the most notable part of the film. Sasaki offers a nice mix of more typical drama music and grungier rock and electronic pop. The former helps to give the film a little extra heart, the latter is mostly there to set the stage and make the film a bit grittier. The score succeeds on both accounts, but the choices aren't too original and the music itself rarely takes center stage. It's a very proper and functional selection of tracks, but Sasaki showed in previous films that he can do more with the music, so I was hoping he would push it.
The cast doesn't have many familiar faces, then again films like these tend to benefit from having less seasoned actors giving spirited performances. And the cast nailed that part of the brief. Ibuki Kaneda is perfect as Eve, giving a lively, raging performance that aptly covers the different aspects of her personality. The secondary actors are solid too, feeding off Kaneda while making sure their characters are distinct enough. Nobody is going to win any awards for their performance, it's just not that kind of film, but everyone gave exactly what was needed from them.
The film is divided into three chapters, though I didn't quite understand the added value. It's not that the story is all that straightforward, it's just that the chapter headings came at somewhat random moments. If Sasaki was truly committed to the chapter setup, I feel he could've included a few more, to highlight the various shifts in focus. That said, it's not all that distracting either, and the film jumps happily between a few different storylines, bringing everything together in an energetic and vibrant finale. There's a little lull in the middle of the film, but other than that, I very much appreciated the structure.
When You Wish Upon a Star may have some trouble finding its target audience. It's a bit too chummy with its love for genre to please those with a purer affinity for dark dramas, and it's too much of a character drama to make it a safe choice for some leisurely genre-watching. Those who can appreciate the combination are in for a good time though. The gritty look and grungy score accentuate the pent-up anger that runs underneath the film, while some spirited performances make sure that the dramatic side hits its targets. Katsumi Sasaki should be proud of what he accomplished here.