I Wish (Japan, 2011)

The eighth feature film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, I Wish (Kiseki) could be seen as a lighter counterpart to his heartbreaking Nobody Knows (2004) as he once more turns to children as his main subjects. Other familiar themes of his are also very much present, cleverly embedded and explored within a touching work that, at first glance, seems like just another formulaic, feel-good family drama. Young manzai comedy duo Maeda Maeda (individually, Koki (age twelve) and Ohshiro (ten)), play two brothers, Koichi and Ryunosuke, who live apart from each other in the aftermath of their parents’ divorce. Koichi lives with his mother (Nene Otsuka) and grandparents in the town of Kagoshima, which is often covered by a layer of ash from a nearby active volcano. Meanwhile, the younger, feistier Ryu lives with his father (Jo Odagiri), a musician, in northerly Hakata. The brothers call each other often, sharing news from their respective ends of the country. Koichi is especially saddened by the division of his family, quietly longing for it to be brought back together again. A glimmer of hope appears from an unlikely source: the imminent opening of a new bullet train that will run between Kagoshima and Hakata. After hearing a classmate say that the moment when the first two trains cross one another will grant the wish of anyone there to witness it, Koichi enlists the help of his brother and their friends to make a trip to Kumamoto, located exactly between the two towns, to wish for his family’s reunion.

If one were to apply the oft-made comparison between Kore-eda and his predecessor, the great Yasujiro Ozu, to I Wish, the most apt parallel in the older director’s filmography would be Good Morning (1959). In both cases, the film revolves around a simple desire shared by two brothers (a new television set; the unification of their family) that creates rippling effects on the various characters around them. Like Ozu, Kore-eda focuses on adults as well as children, sometimes investing the former with immature or childlike qualities while presenting the latter as more responsible and independent. The most apt illustration of this role reversal occurs early on when Ryu busily prepares himself for school while his father lazily remains in bed, half-asleep. Much of the film maintains a warm, comedic tone, though slivers of pain and sadness nonetheless emerge, as when the boys’ mother, who worries about finding a proper job, comes home drunk from a class reunion and calls her other son in Hakata, unable to contain her tears. Other scenes highlight the negative relationships that can form between parents and their children, like when single mother Megumi, one of Ryu’s friends and an aspiring actress, coldly tries to discourage her daughter from following her dreams. Later, when the children are on their journey to Kumamoto, they come across one of the film’s most delightful surprises: a kind old couple who unexpectedly give them food and shelter for the night. Overjoyed by their young guests’ presence in their home, they extend their hospitality while recalling memories of their own daughter, who, tellingly, remains estranged from them.

While Koichi and Ryu’s goal to see their family together once more remains at the centre of I Wish, both boys’ friends are also given ample attention and character development – particularly when they too become inspired to make their own wishes. Each of them yearns for something: to become an actress, to play professional baseball, to lose weight, to make a father quit his gambling habit. One of the film’s many montage sequences is dedicated to the children making courageous efforts to advance towards these goals, while another portrays humorous attempts to gather the needed funds for the tickets to Kumamoto. This exploration of wishes and the hard work required to realize them is even reflected through the boys’ grandfather and his ongoing attempts to make the perfect sponge cake.

I Wish once more indicates Kore-eda’s gift for directing children, which here allows for a constant sense of refreshing honesty sprinkled with some wonderfully funny moments. But as the kids work together and set out on their quest to meet the trains, there is an undeniable bittersweet quality to their endeavors that comes from the difficult truths they learn about the world – namely, that grown-ups’ ways can sometimes be at odds with the finer wisdom of children, and that some miracles simply can’t come true even with the magical convergence of two bullet trains.

Yet Kore-eda delivers this potentially heavy material gently, all the while lacing in several of his favorite ingredients, including the different rhythms of the city and the country and, of course, liberal amounts of train travel. His distinct touch and talent can be clearly felt from beginning to end, firmly qualifying I Wish as yet another solid chapter in the modern master’s career.

Marc Saint-Cyr is an occasional contributor to the VCinema Blog and has most recently appeared on the VCinema Podcast to participate in its three-part series on the New Taiwan Cinema. He is a staff writer for the J-Film Pow-Wow and has contributed to the first and second volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and World Film Locations: Tokyo from Intellect Ltd. as well as such publications as Midnight Eye, Row Three, Senses of Cinema and Toronto Film Scene.