In Childhood, When 'I Wish' Equals An Action Plan

May 10, 2012

When you're young, there's just so much to misunderstand about the world. And isn't that kind of what makes it such fun?

Hirokazu Kore-eda's film I Wish is designed to make us long for the misadventures of childhood by giving us another set of ups and downs to follow: the tribulations of Koichi Osako, a 12-year-old Japanese boy with a plan to reunite his family.

Things begin with Koichi (Koki Maeda) casting a sullen gaze at the active volcano that touches — quite literally — everything in his new hometown. The ash it spews 24-7 coats houses inside and out with a constant reminder of the possibility of a molten doom. You begin to wonder if the director is giving us a line into the Japanese psyche, battered by centuries of natural disasters.

But for Koichi, the volcanic dust doesn't tap into ancient history. It simply reminds him of the past six months, which have been miserable. His parents' divorce split the family in half, and he pines day and night to somehow undo what's already done. For now, though, Koichi lives with his mother in Kagoshima, an unfamiliar city he can't stand. His younger brother Ryu (Oshiro Maeda, Koki's real-life younger brother) is under the care of their father in Fukuoka, a couple of hours north by train.

As it happens, trains will figure heavily into Koichi's plan for family unity, which he only hatches in full one day at school upon overhearing a secret about kiseki, or miracles. Any wish you have will come true, his classmate explains with scientific certainty, if you wish it closely enough to the spot where two bullet trains pass each other for the first time. Koichi remembers that a new rail line is set to debut nearby, and suddenly he has his mission.

The narrative centers mostly on Koichi's trip to this miraculous train-passing zone, which will require backup (his brother and their friends), along with means (there are more loose coins than you'd think under Japan's vending machines) and a strong alibi for skipping class (it helps to get the school nurse on your side).

Kore-eda wants us to remember the way in which children desire the outlandish and impossible, so he gives them the majority of the screen time here. It's a decision that pays great dividends. The Maedas — a comedic duo by trade — pair well as the straight man and the jokester; Koki's Koichi is businesslike in every pursuit, while Oshiro's Ryu, who wears a constant grin and is prone to chasing dragonflies, tends to live so blissfully in the present that he can't be bothered with intricate schemes.

When Koichi and Ryu don't see eye to eye, the tension percolates believably beneath their dialogue. They're honest while navigating around their conflicts, just like real brothers might be. Of course maybe that's because they are, but it takes talented performers to make casting brothers as brothers come off as a smart — not simplistic — choice.

Kore-eda got his start in documentaries, and he treats the children in this film more like autonomous subjects than like actors. They weren't given scripts; instead, he fed them their lines on filming days. Do that, and you're bound to wind up with glitches of bad timing and jokes that fall flat. I Wish is no exception, but more often than not Kore-eda's technique creates space for something truly special in a film: kids talking like kids.

The film invites us into the world of a child in more ways than one, though. The director scores life in suburban Japan mostly with bouncy, playful tones and quirky instrumentation. The lighting feels true to life; no one's manufacturing ominous auras.

Kore-eda has a true talent for the "show, don't tell" method, letting the story unspool over long periods with minimal dialogue. Applied to subplots like Koichi's grandfather's burgeoning cake business, that can grow tiresome. But when the action picks up, his documentarian sensibilities engage. Then it's terrific fun as his wobbly camera rushes to keep up with our young band of adventurers.

Each of the seven children (Koichi, Ryu and their trusty sidekick friends) brings his or her own wish for the train-passing. Maybe that's one or two too many; it's hard to root equally for some of the peripheral characters. Still, it's the scenes where the kids gather into a circle and share their aspirations --competing with a cartoon superhero, marrying the fetching school nurse — in which Kore-eda succeeds in bottling the energy of that cusp between magical possibility and adulthood. It's a tiny miracle that we're allowed to revisit it here.

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