An unabashedly optimistic film that marks a return to Hirokazu Koreeda’s exploration of life and familial connection.
It is no exaggeration to view Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda as one of the legitimate heirs to the throne of Yasujiro Ozu, especially after the magnificent Still Walking (2008). Seeing Japan through the most measured of lenses, his similar explorations of family, death, childhood and tradition have characterised his works to date. Even in his previous film Air Doll (2009), effectively about a sex doll who unexpectedly develops a heart and a sentience of her own, Koreeda continued to contrast modernity with notions of the traditional and human emotions within his beautifully lonely viewpoint. Just as Ozu was shunned by the New Wave, Koreeda sits in stark contrast to the popular genre pictures that flood the international home market. Yet his incredibly local focus crosses borders with an optimism that betrays the distance from his contemporaries.
Two brothers have been separated by their parent’s divorce. Older brother Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his struggling mother (Nene Otsuka) and grandparents in Kagoshima, where a volcano threatens to erupt at any moment. Meanwhile, Ryu (his real-life brother Oshiro Maeda) lives on the other side of the island in Fukuoka with his wannabe rockstar father (Joe Odagiri). A trainline connecting the two cities is drawing close to completion, and soon the boys and their friends begin to believe that when the bullet trains pass each other for the first time, a miracle will occur. Koichi begins to plot with his brother to be present at this fabled event, hoping he will be able to reunite his family.
I Wish immediately distinguishes itself as being thematically lighter than his immediate predecessors, and just as he did with Nobody Walks (2004), places children at the epicentre of his world. The leisurely paced film takes its time getting to the magical moment, and Koreeda’s aim is not a high-concept one at all. Rather, he is interested in the waves of emotions that each of the young characters goes through on their way to this possibility. Indeed, any suspension of disbelief required to follow such young kids on what seems like a risky journey, albeit no more so than the Amblin films of the 1980s, is negated by the complex mixture of moments that Koreeda is able to share with us throughout the course of his very particular approach.
Koreeda’s observational style is where parallels with Ozu are most marked, and it is this unobtrusive nature that ensures that the sentimentality is never forced or less than genuine. The closest parallel might actually come from the world of animation, particularly the works of Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro) or Mamoru Hosada (Summer Wars), where the bigger narrative at play is actually secondary to the nostalgic musings on the importance of family and youth. The performances of the child actors are convincing and charming, especially those of the Maeda brothers. Koreeda has left the adult roles in the capable hands of veterans Joe Odagiri and Kirin Kiki, both of whom he has worked with before.
The universality of I Wish comes not in the totems of doom that threaten to rip their lives apart – be it divorce, volcanic eruption or deadbeat dads – but in the unflappable hope that comes from their collective wishes. Unabashedly upbeat, and about building unity across a nation, Koreeda delivers a film to a country that remains in need of healing in the wake of great recent tragedies.