I Wish (Kiseki)

Japan (2011) Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

After the breakdown of their parents’ marriage brothers Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryunosuke (Ohshirô Maeda) now live apart from each other. Koichi lives with his mother Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) and his grandparents (Isao Hashizume and Kirin Kiki) in Kagoshima, where a nearby volcano regularly erupts leaving ash everywhere.

Ryu lives in Fokuoko with his wannabe musician father Kenji (Jô Odagiri) seemingly having the more exciting time of the two. When Koichi hears a tale about two high speed bullet trains that, when they pass each other, a miracle occurs, he instigates a meeting with Ryu at an intersection where the trains meet so they can make a wish.

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda seems to have found his niche making whimsical family films that avoid the saccharine route to engender an “it could happen to you” feeling in the viewer. Perhaps not so much his previous UK release Air Doll but droll dramas such as Still Walking or Nobody Knows are deeply rooted in “the real world” and possess a natural resonance with the audience. I Wish is thus far his strongest work in that area, transcending the fluffiness of the kids’ slowly altering attitudes to life to speak to us oldies too.

As is his way, Koreeda litters his works with subtle little signs for the viewer to pick up on to help tell the story without going into too much detail. For example, the two brothers may be miles apart but there is little melancholy about this, as though they are treating this separation as a holiday.

The fact that Nozomi has run back to her parents while Kenji has his own home is bitterly ironic as the break-up was about Kenji not taking life seriously, preferring to live the slacker lifestyle and dream about music rather than being a providing husband and father. Now, Kenji is working and playing in a band, while Nozomi is forced to take a supermarket job which she deems beneath her.

The other interesting facet to note is that both boys are fairly self sufficient with the younger Ryu often being the adult to Kenji’s child. Both brothers come and ago as they please and live their lives with minimal parental interference. But while Ryu is having a blast with his dad and his band mates, Koichi sees his mother’s unhappiness and wants the family to be one again. Upon hearing the train story, he thinks he has found a way to make this happen.

To avoid the story remaining one dimensional, Koreeda expands the theme to include the rest of the cast, including the school friends of our two sibling protagonists who become important buttresses to their plight with their own concerns. One of Ryu’s friends is Megumi (Kyara Uchida) whose mother (Yui Natsukawa) is a failed actress who seems to resent her daughter getting small TV work, something Megumi feels pushed into.

Later when the group of kids are lost it is Megumi’s acting that earns them bed and board for the night when they meet an elderly couple and she pretends to be their granddaughter! Elsewhere one school mate of Koichi’s has a dead dog he wants brought back to life while another wants to marry his school teacher!

In putting the focus on the kids, Koreeda gives them plenty of scope to develop as characters, from their interaction with their friends and family to their dedication and determination to raising the funds for the train journey and the emotional growth that results in their eventual wish making moment. This puts the adult characters somewhat in the shade but they too contribute with some cute adjuncts to the plot – such as the school nurse who gives Koichi and his pals a tip on how to fake a fever, or the brothers’ grandfather with his cake making dreams.

The genesis of this film was in fact to publicise the new Kagoshima route of Japan Railways bullet train line which fit in with a story Koreeda already had. But this isn’t an exercise in product placement and does nothing to bludgeon the viewer with any commercial manipulation, becoming instead a convenient plot device. Koreeda has long been preordained as the natural successor to the legendary master of the family drama Yasujiro Ozu and many elements of Kiseki (the Japanese for “miracle”) certainly go some way to justifying this lofty mantle.

It won’t have escaped your notice that the two leads Koki and Ohshirô Maeda are real life siblings. This helps give the story an added credence and their performances are wonderfully natural, as are those of their fellow junior co-stars. Despite some odd lines of precocious dialogue and a few “old before their time” mannerisms, the greatest joy is watching the children be children and not little adults.

Japan is strict in teaching discipline and responsibility to their schoolchildren, having them do cleaning chores at school as part of their daily routine, but they are also allowed to behave their ages too and that comes across in this film, especially in the second half, which will no doubt give some viewers flashbacks to the 80’s Hollywood classic Stand By Me.

Rich with wonderfully understated photography and a gentle yet never dull pace, Koreeda shows that real life needn’t be a bore. I Wish is a simple but poetic piece of modern filmmaking that is both uplifting and thought provoking. It takes us back to that time in our lives as children when we start to lose our innocence while pointing out that as adults, it is still buried within us somewhere.

 A treat, pure and simple.