Opening in theaters this week, acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s new movie I Wish tells the tale of two young brothers, Ryu and Koichi, who are forced to navigate an unexpectedly chaotic new universe after they are separated from each other following their parents explosive divorce. With its quiet, irreverent and sweet presentation, I Wish is a rare example of a dramatic film for adults about children that avoids overly romanticizing its subjects or becoming bogged down by whimsical adorableness. Like Koreeda’s previous work, it’s one of the most powerful movies about families made during the past ten years, in Japan or anywhere else.
After their parents’ troubled marriage finally collapses and ends in divorce, brothers Koichi and Ryu are forced to split up and move with their parents to disparate regions of Japan’s Kyushu province. Ryu relocates with their father, a troubled musician, to Fukuoka, while Koichi travels with their mother to Kagoshima to move in with his grandparents. Painfully separated from each other, and far from the city of Osaka where they grew up, the boys are each forced to adjust to new landscapes of school, socialization, and family dynamics, with Koichi in particular struggling visibly with feelings of regret and loss.
With enthusiastic support from his friends, Koichi becomes preoccupied with the construction of the new Kyushu bullet train system, convinced that anyone who is present to witness the first two trains on the line passing each other in opposite directions will have his wish granted. Childishly hoping for a full-scale eruption of Kagoshima’s dormant volcano that will destroy the Kyushu province and force his bifurcated family to return to Osaka together, Koichi hatches a plan to journey with his friends to the bullet trains’ intersection point on the day of the launch. There, they will meet up with Ryu and his schoolmates and unite in a triumphant explosion of wish making.
Koreeda cites the American classic Stand By Me as a primary inspiration for his elementary school coming-of-age chronicle, and the similarities are instantly apparent, though I Wish is more restrained and detail-oriented than Rob Reiner’s beloved nostalgia spectacle. A lot of credit for the film’s success is owed to its pre-adolescent performers, who carry the weight of their roles so well, it’s easy to forget they’re acting at all. Koichi and Ryu are played by Koki and Oshiro Maeda, real-life brothers who performed in Japan as a comedy duo prior to the film’s conception, and who made such a compelling impression during the auditions process that Koreeda actually re-wrote I Wish substantially in order to accommodate them. For such a delicate and potentially volatile undertaking, the film’s execution is incredibly strong and poignant, deftly illustrating the adventures and difficulties of childhood without ever discrediting or dismissing them.