Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohshirô Maeda) are two brothers who have been separated by their parents’ divorce and 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, he starts to believe that a miracle will take place the moment these new trains first pass each other at top speed.
Koichi is a fourth-grader who lives with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshima, a town under the shadow of an active volcano in Kyushu in South-Western Japan. What he most wants in the world is to be reunited with his younger brother Ryu and his father, who live in Fukuoka in the northern part of the island following a bitter divorce.
a wryly witty and heartfelt saga
How Koichi sets about realising his dream lies at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, a wryly witty and heartfelt saga about separation, isolation, childhood innocence and sibling bonds.
The director is in familiar emotional territory, typified by his 2004 docudrama Nobody Knows, which centred on four kids who were left to fend for themselves in a small Tokyo apartment after being abandoned by their mother, and 1995’s Maborosi, which followed a young widow and her son who moved to a coastal village where they knew no one.
There is a natural affinity here between the siblings who are played by real-life brothers Maeda Koki and Maeda Ohshiro, precocious talents who perform as a comedy duo. Yet they are very different characters: Ryu (Ohshiro) is a bubbly, cheeky chatterbox while Koichi is more moody and introverted. The boys have not seen each other for six months but remain close via regular chats on the phone.
The first half or so is laboriously slow as the director depicts each boy’s humdrum life at school, at play with friends and at home. Their grandfather spends an inordinate amount of time baking a cake, smoking and playing cards and getting pissed with his mates.
The film kicks into gear when a classmate of Koichi tells him her theory about a new bullet train service. She believes that when the northbound and southbound trains pass each other for the first time, travelling at 260km per hour, that precise moment will generate such intense energy that anyone who witnesses it will have his or her wish granted, 'like a falling star".
Koichi starts to concoct a plan to travel to the town where the bullet trains cross, enlisting the help of two friends, scrounging enough money for the rail journey and figuring out how to skip school and come up with an alibi so his mother won’t worry. Ryu intends to bring a bunch of his pals to the rendezvous.
Until the kids set off on that adventure, much of the drama revolves around each lad’s problematic relationship with one parent. Touchingly, Koichi rings his absent father Kenji (Odagiri Joe), a lazy musician, to ask, 'Don’t we matter to you?" The response is not very convincing, 'No, that’s not true". Kenji adds in terms that any father is unlikely to use to a son aged about 12, 'I want you to grow up to become someone who cares more about the world than just your own life".
Ryu tells his self-pitying mother Nozomi (Ohtsuka Nene): 'You think I’m just like Dad so I thought maybe you don’t like me." She denies it and is reduced to tears. And there are fireworks concerning Ryu’s friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida), an aspiring actress, and her embittered mother (Yui Natsukawa).
It’s a feel-good ending which does not require the viewer to believe in miracles. Koki registers strongly as a kid who is wise beyond his years, endures the pain of separation and is so desperate he says he hopes the nearby volcano erupts and destroys the town so he and his mother can move back with his dad and brother.
After that low-key and meandering first reel, Kore-eda shows a much firmer grasp of the material but the focus on the two boys and a couple of their friends doesn’t leave much time to develop the adult characters. Also, tighter editing could have shaved 10 or 15 minutes from the running time and given the narrative more impetus.
The jaunty soundtrack from Japanese band Quruli sometimes strikes a jarring note when the tone calls out for more subtlety.