The opening moments of writer/director Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s new film involve a volcano. A young boy, Koichi, happens to live right next to an active one. It doesn’t pose any real threat, but it spews ash over the city daily, to Koichi’s chagrin. I Wish doesn’t announce its intentions up front, but after delicately spooling out important character elements, bit by bit, it becomes clear what a significant metaphor Kore-Eda has introduced. In typical Kore-Eda fashion (Still Walking, Nobody Knows), what begins as something simple and unassuming eventually becomes powerful and poignant.
Koichi is struggling with the recent separation of his parents. Like any child of divorce, all he really wants is everyone together and happy again, an idea both childish and idealistic. Koichi is living with his mother and grandparents, meanwhile his happy-go-lucky little brother, Ryu, is living farther away with their father. Koichi hears about an urban legend involving bullet trains passing for the first time. Apparently the force is so great that if you witness the event, your wish will be granted. Koichi, feeling very isolated, hatches a plan to meet his brother halfway and make his wish.
I Wish is all about being observant. There’s not a lot of drama, just a brilliantly realized slice of childhood. For instance, Ryu is too young to really process all that’s happening around him. He doesn’t even intend to wish for his family back together. He misses his brother, but he’s already accepted the way things are. Honestly, the film is a bit long and before you realize what it’s doing it can feel dull. Kore-Eda is especially talented at getting great performances out of child actors, but this time around they are not nearly as great. Not bad, but they were stilted in between moments of naturalism.
But once the quest is set in motion, I Wish comes alive. Koichi brings along his friends, and Ryu brings along his own (oddly enough, but in keeping with his character, Ryu’s friends are girls). Everyone has their own unique wish, from becoming an actress to bringing a pet back to life. When the moment of truth comes, it is truly magical. The sequence delivers an emotional blow of nostalgia and longing. The scene makes up for any of the film’s lesser qualities.
Kore-Eda has once again crafted a subtle portrait of family bonds and innocence lost. Perhaps a little too subtle for the run time, but still effective. Whether any wish comes true is beside the point, a fact even Koichi seems to realize. It has been an adventure and he has seen what matters in his life. It might be covered in ash, but maybe that’s not so bad after all.