Twelve year old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) in Kagoshima, in the southern region of Kyushu, while his younger brother Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda) lives with their father (Jo Odagiri) in bustling Hakata in the northern end. Seperated from his brother since their parents’ divorce, Koichi’s only wish is for his family to be reunited. When he learns that a new bullet train line will soon open, linking the two towns, Koichi comes to believe that a miracle will take place the moment these two new trains first pass each other at top speed. To that end Koichi sets out on a journey along with Ryunosuke and some equally hopeful young friends to ensure each of their hearts desires come true.
With I Wish, Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda revisits the theme of the enduring spirit of children in trying circumstances several years in the wake of Nobody Knows (2004). A surprisingly divisive filmmaker, Koreeda’s work has been variously praised for its conceptual daring paired with an unobtrusive, documentary style of filmmaking and profoundly humanistic themes, yet criticised in some quarters for meandering nature and excessive length. Here he has crafted a remarkable work that in some instances evokes memories of the honest, unsentimental yet tender studies of childhood that were once the reserve of the great French auteur François Truffaut. A deceptively simple film that harbours many facets, I Wish details the emotional fallout of a broken family with honesty, heart and no small amount of humour without resorting to contrived melodrama.
In this heroic endeavour, Koreeda is greatly aided by the instantly engaging performances given by his young leads, real-life siblings Koki and Ohshiro Maeda. Although Koreeda started with the basic premise of his film, he did not come to write the screenplay until after the young actors were cast so he could draw from their own ideas. As their onscreen alter-egos the stars sport contrasting personalities that seem to match the places where they live. Koichi is quiet and contemplative while Ryunosuke is energetic and impulsive, ironically the polar opposite of his easygoing dad. Koreeda’s measured, observational style transforms mundane daily routines like cooking or cleaning into compelling cinema yet the film’s aspirations lie beyond mere documentary realism and reach towards the realm of wishes and dreams that are normally the reserve of fantasy cinema.
As was the case with the director’s earlier After Life (1998), wishes and dreams offer a unique window into the human soul. This is particularly true of children who are forever reaching for things beyond their grasp, both literally and figuratively speaking. As the story plays out Koichi and Ryunosuke gather a band of young friends who each harbour their own secret desire. Makoto (Seinosuke Nagayoshi) wants to be a baseball player. Ota aspires to marry his cute teacher. Ryunosuke’s friend Kanna (Kanna Hashimoto) dearly wants to be an actress while Megumi (Kyara Uchida) dreams of becoming an actress even though she lives in the shadow of a more talented rival whom she can’t even despise because the girl is so darn nice. For their part, Ryunosuke’s secret wish is to either become Kamen Rider (1971) or someday pilot a super-car, while Koichi wants the local volcano to explode so he and his mother will have to move back with his dad. Naturally, over the course of events both boys come to change their minds revealing the film’s real preoccupation is with the process of maturity rather than simple wish-fulfilment. Growing up means learning to become less selfish and more sensitive to the feelings of others.
Much like the animated output of Studio Ghibli, the film unfolds in a benign world that gently indulges and nurtures the young. This is evident in such endearing scenes as when the children find shelter with a kind elderly couple or when the school nurse and easygoing teacher (Hiroshi Abe) turn a blind eye and actually help the children skip school so they can have a memorable adventure.
Japanese director who has made both documentaries and dramas for Japanese TV as well as turning in some affecting feature films. Maborosi (1995) was a powerful study of a young woman coming to terms with her husband's suicide, Afterlife (1998) took an inventive look at life-after-death, while 2001's Distance deals with terrorism and sacrifice and I Wish a wistful tale of childhood. Our Little Sister gently developed his interest in the power of memories and in 2018, he was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his troubling, emotional drama Shoplifters.