I don’t get it (wakaranai) is Koichi’s mantra in I Wish: as the volcanic ashes pile up in his room, on his clothes, and tatami mats, as the plumes envelop the entire city of Kagoshima in greyness, the locals go stoically about their business. Not so Koichi (mature performance by Koki Maeda): in defiance he shakes off his washcloth that also gets covered overnight while drying, and fights entropy for all of them, daily. A recent transplant into the city, he just doesn’t understand how the residents can so completely ignore the possibility of Mt. Sakurajima erupting. But when his schoolmates tell him to get used to it, they don’t necessarily mean the ashes. Koichi’s parents are no longer together, his mother moved him to her parents’, and his younger brother Ryunosuke (the charming Ohshiro Maeda, Koki’s real life sibling) chose to live with their father in Fukuoka. While Koichi is persistently wishing for the family to reunite, his brother goes on planting a garden and making new friends, joyously embracing his new existence without parents’ quarreling.
Hirokazu Koreeda is a competent director. He guides us through the healing process, and the different ways that people, children especially, tackle it. And it all goes better with a little help from warm caring friends and strangers. He splits the time between Koichi’s and Ryunosuke’s lives, showing how they get transformed not just by their experience, but by guidance from adults and peers alike, and how in turn they transform and guide others – their parents included. The insights we gain in life perhaps are achieved in collaboration, and none of them come easily, yet still, enjoyment is to be had daily. And that is the miracle (which is the literal translation of the original title Kiseki – 奇跡) Koreeda ventured to show the audiences. It is not the first time he relied on the child actors to improvise. His heavily awarded (and deservedly so) Nobody Knows (Daremo shiranai) drew much from unscripted performances of the children, the natural interaction adding an almost documentary feel to the film. Similarly, I Wish puts the voyeur into the viewer: it seems the camera just happens to be there to capture the action, rather than the action happening because the camera is present. The light, organic phrasing of the film helps create an idyllic landscape – the kind of childhood in stark contrast with the earlier film that pulled no punches and exposed the harsh realities that children may very well encounter. The difference in attitudes of Koichi and Ryunosuke also serves to remind us, that there is not a singular valid reality. Very different worlds may coexist, founded by the same facts.
In case I failed to mention this: I Wish is tremendously fun to watch. No, it will not send anyone flying on the floor to roll around and laugh out loud. But a teenage boy dreaming of marrying the school librarian will make you smile. The handsome little fella steals her bike ring, just so he can pretend he found it and return it, only to have an extra conversation with the object of his affection. (Apparently, the director drew on his own childhood crushes.) And, watching Koichi’s grandfather (Isao Hashizume is a joy) attempt a comeback from retirement, so he can support his daughter and grandchild, will give you a warm feeling in the belly. The man plots and plans the best karukan cake around. Koichi’s friend sells off his collectible figurines to help fund their trip. The trip at the center of the narrative is such a wonderful adventure; only a child’s mind could conjure it. The idea that two bullet trains passing could create a large amount of energy that somehow allows for wishes to come true is a great notion, and a marvelous example of childlike logic, an invitation into a universe where fable mixes with knowledge, where physics can be embellished by fantasy without contradiction. Koichi and friends sets out for the spot, where the new bullet train passes by the existing line as they head in opposite directions, in the hopes their wishes shall come true if they witness the event. It becomes a meeting place for the brothers, who also arrive from different directions, with different friends, to leave separately, neither one of them wishing for the family to reunite, both of them now able to see a new future, to see the bigger picture, to see the world. However, I found the montage used here (instead of showing the actual trains passing) a bit problematic. It is a legitimate technique, and it was probably a sound decision, so odds are I am exhibiting some pettiness here. It very much makes the intended statement, however Koichi disclosing he discarded his wish does the same trick. While the montage serves a purpose, I failed to derive any aesthetic pleasure out of it. I think it was at odds with the rest of the movie: the invisible machinery, all the cables, generators, sound carts, lighting gear suddenly announced their presence. The innocence disappeared; I was forced to focus on the manufacture of it all. Perhaps it is the optic of an adult that prevents me from seeing it as magic.
Like karukan cake’s faint flavor, the film’s quiet pace may be an acquired taste, but the rewards are plentiful. Koreeda captures children at their best, eager to learn, to believe, to nurture each other, to explore the world around them. Brotherhood, family, and friendship are concepts deconstructed and reshaped at the hands of the protagonists. Unsentimentally, the director shows a woman in her thirties returning to her hometown to become a checkout girl, just as she is facing a high school reunion, freshly separated from a husband. We see her struggle as a mother whose child decided not to live with her, only to discover Ryunosuke is growing her favorite beans and will be sure to send some. A parent’s love includes letting go. A child’s love includes remembering, visiting, sometimes. How these simple truths are attained, as we go along, as we grow and grow up, is gracefully laid out. The miracle of caring for one another, and touching each other’s lives is gently unveiled. The ingredients are simple. Koreeda refused to pour pink icing over it, yet the film goes well beyond a charming vignette: it allows for a wonderful glimpse of childhood as a way of being, not just a stage in life.