The historic Konoe student dormitory building in Kyoto, built in 1905, is nearing the end of its life. The university authorities want to demolish it, believing it to be unsafe. For 10 years the students who live there have been arguing to protect the dorm, with ongoing discussions with the university and student services providing a common cause for them. Cupie (Ren Sudo) and Masara (Kazunori Mimura) are idealistic freshmen, believing that the integrity of the dormitory must be preserved. Their group of student activitists are led by Mifune (Haya Nakazaki), an older student who has taken on the role of spokesperson for the group, and his deputy Shimura (Amane Okayama). Their struggle against University bureaucracy, represented by a no-nonsense middle-aged receptionist nicknamed ‘Tetrapod’, is complicated when Mifune’s sister, Kaori (Riko Narumi) begins work at the student servives desk.
“Wonder Wall” is a simple film, revolving around the debate of whether or not to knock down the dormitory, with broader allegorical significance. Early in the film there is reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the southern border wall proposed in the United States. These call to mind other political moments where young people have been instrumental in combatting forces of oppression and division. The students’ fight against the authorities is not particularly about the dormitory, with the students themselves realising something needs to be done about it, but instead represents for them the importance of standing up to authority and having your say. The students understand that they are fighting a losing battle, but continue regardless, believing that it is the fight itself that is important more than the eventual outcome. The struggle is what binds them together and gives them a purpose. The film also represents the freedom of youth against the rigid authoritarian structures of society, represented by impenetrable levels of bureaucracy. The bohemian lifestyle of the students is perfectly depicted, with them sleeping where they like; empty bottles strewn around; raucous meetings to discuss protocol for rubbish in their commune-like residence; and the chaotic backdrop of clothes and books strewn around their accommodation.
Yuki Maeda’s direction, with hand-held camerawork, wandering through the dormitory, or in amongst the group as they confront student services, makes you feel a part of the students’ environment and their struggle, fully immersed in the disordered yet liberating atmosphere of rebellious youth. The naturalistic performances and large supporting cast also help give a sense of believability with costumes and set-design telling much of the story too. The screenplay by Aya Watanabe does a good job of focussing on the particular struggle of these students, while leaving room for interpretation. It raises questions about the human urge to confront authority; the importance of freedom of expression and protest; how students have changed, or not, through the years; and also what the dormitory symbolises for the students. The performance of a song by supporters of the dormitory give a glimpse of what it is they are truly working to protect. They know that the building is probably unsuitable, even potentially dangerous, but it is the human element that they are fighting for, the sense of community that they have found, and the idealism of youth, that they want to preserve and carry forward with them.