Live-action Japanese cinema — at least the stuff that makes it over to this side of the Pacific — is dominated by B-grade an genre movies: samurai epics, horror or monster films, and even some “pink” movies. And then there’s Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, I Wish, is a perfect gem: a touching, uncynical coming-of-age story that deals honestly, but gently, with the frustrations of life in the world.
Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives in Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu, with his mother (Nene Otsuka) and her parents (Kirin Kiki and Isao Hashizume). His little brother, Ryu (Koki’s actual brother, Oshiro), left for Fukuoka with their aspiring musician father, Kenji (Joe Odagiri). Koichi talks about trying to get their parents back together, with his fond memories of their time together; Ryu also remembers the escalating fights over Kenji’s slacker tendencies.
But there’s a ray of hope: a bullet train line is about to open between Kagoshima and Fukuoka. One of Koichi’s young friends swears that due to the tremendous energies involved, a “miracle” happens between the trains as they pass each other. Anyone lucky enough to see it will have his wish granted. Surely if Koichi and Ryu were both there wishing to live all four together again, it would come to pass. To a jaded grown-up’s yes it seems it would take a miracle, but Koichi is still at an age where he can believe in such things, though he’s at the point of clinging tightly to his belief, understanding on some level that it’s soon to run out.
Koki and Oshiro Maeda are excellent in their roles, coming across as perfectly natural children but still delivering polished, professional performances. In part, this speaks to Kore-eda’s skill with writing for and directing children, as was on display in 2004’s Nobody Knows.
Koichi isn’t the only one with a wish; his friends and Ryu’s come along on the trip, each with their own intentions. Some are childish: no more homework, or the best collection of Beyblades. Some are starting to look to the future: imagining a career in professional baseball, or as an actress. Their age range spans the gap between children’s fantasies to the first real understanding of loss and regret.
This is a theme Kore-eda returns to gently, but insistently over and over: the disconnect between aspiration and actuality, and how to deal with it. Ryu’s friend, Megumi (Kara Uchida), wants to be an actress but another girl in her class seems to have a lock on the spotlight. Megumi’s mother (Yui Natsukawa) finds that her own life hasn’t turned out as she once had hoped it would. Koichi’s mother must readjust to life without her husband, and his grandfather bemoans the waning popularity of his beloved karukan cakes.
The atmosphere extends even to the choice of location: Kagoshima lies in the shadow of Sakurajima, ominously belching out smoke and ash whenever we see it. There is always, hovering in the distance, the sense that some cataclysmic change might arrive at any moment.
But rather than push for high melodrama, Kore-eda goes in an entirely different, and more realistic, direction. Disappointment is a fact of life; things don’t always turn out the way we might hope, no matter what all the inspirational commencement speeches from those lucky few who have reached their own pinnacles of achievement might try to push on us. We can wish and hope, but ultimately we must live in the world as it is. What sets Kore-eda apart is that he tells us that this is okay; the world is not over; we can still find happiness even though our original plans didn’t work out. To be happy in the face of adversity is the real miracle.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.