Many reviews of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “I Wish,” opening in U.S. theaters this week, mention its lighthearted tone. While it’s an accurate description of the blithe soundtrack and apparent lack of conflict, Kore-eda doesn’t gloss over the deeper substance of his scenario in favor of good vibes. Instead, he spins a unique blend of melancholy without getting mopey about it.
Providing yet more ammo to those who compare his youth-centric dramas to Ozu, Kore-eda’s latest story of alienated children is both simple and profound. Kore-eda’s screenplay gradually settles into its two main settings and the two boys connecting them. In the wake of their parents’ divorce, 12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother Ryunosuke (Oshiro Maeda, Koki’s real-life brother) have been split up against their will: Koichi has been stuck with his grandparents in the low-key neighborhood community of Kagoshima, an island region in the shadow of a volcano that endlessly spouts fumes into the air. Ryunosuke lives a comparatively spirited life with the brothers’ indie-rock father in the north.
Unaccustomed to change, Koichi grows intent on reuniting the family and believes to have found a panacea in the construction of a new bullet train connecting the two towns. Through a childlike process of reasoning that the movie takes at face value, Koichi determines that when the two trains pass each other in opposite directions, their wishes will come true.
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Koichi’s conviction about the prospects of a supernatural power that can reunite their family forms the backbone of “I Wish,” as the siblings continually scheme to get back together and reach the spot where they can cast their wish. No “Goonies”-type adventure yarn, “I Wish” only uses this premise as a backdrop to let its world sink in. The movie almost exclusively takes place from the two boys’ perspective and so the camera largely sits at their height and observes their behavior without veering into melodramatic excess. Kore-eda keeps the proceedings almost alarmingly devoid of drama. However, despite the meandering plot, there’s always the sense that the filmmaker has control of the characters and their situation.
Kore-eda’s previous outings deal with similar feelings of isolation, but generally surface with bleaker results. Much of his filmography oscillates between dark fantasy and literal family drama. In terms of its situation, “I Wish” connects to “Still Walking,” in which a family grapples with their relatives unexpected death, and “Nobody Knows,” the story of four children abandoned by their parents. But “I Wish” lacks the same reverberations of a traumatic incident. Its young stars don’t understand enough about their parents’ divorce to experience the deeper emotional truths that led to it. They only know that something went wrong and they want to make it right. By remaining on that level for the duration of its running time, “I Wish” inhabits a fantasy realm closer to Kore-eda’s “Air Doll,” where a man falls in love with his blow-up doll and it magically comes to life.
In both movies, personal desire defines the protagonists’ reality. Tonally, however, they have little common: “I Wish” embraces blissful ignorance, even celebrating its characters’ naivete. Kore-eda doesn’t bother with a harsh, sudden wakeup call; instead, the boys gradually realize over the course of their journey that some situations lack a clean solution. The climax — when they finally get the chance to cast those wishes — only serves to confirm a conclusion that they have already come to understand.
In the west, the family drama has been exhausted and largely abandoned, partly because audiences have grown too cynical for it. Through that lens, “I Wish” is something of a revelation. Kore-eda’s delicate approach makes it possible for younger viewers to comprehend the drama from Koichi and Ryunosuke’s perspective, but “I Wish” also studies their simplicity with a learned eye. The visual style is largely composed of close-ups of the children’s faces as they struggle to understand a world much larger than them; but Kore-eda also punctuates his narrative with grand, wide angle compositions that situate the children in that larger world. The second framing strategy appears at the sites of the film’s two prominent symbols, the volcano and the train: unthinking forces that unsympathetically barrel forward, demonstrating a fact of life that the children venture closer to understanding with each passing moment.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening this week at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center, “I Wish” should do solid business thanks to good reviews and Kore-eda’s existing fan base.