28 October 2012
“Maybe a miracle will happen,” ten-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) says, after hearing from a classmate a rumor about the new bullet train. The rumor is that when the incoming and outgoing trains pass one another, each racing at 160mph, one can make a wish and it will come true. What Koichi wants more than anything is for his family to be back together.
But Koichi isn’t the only one putting his eggs into a superstitious basket. One of his best friends wants to marry their lovely, bare-legged school librarian. His grandfather believes he can perfect a recipe for karukan cakes and make a tidy income on the side. A classmate wants to become an actress and beat out the more gregarious and self-absorbed girl who has already experienced more success in commercials. In essence, director Hirokazu Kore-eda asks gently, isn’t this how we live? We experience our world through a haze of magical thinking. (This lovely, sweet film is streaming now on Netflix.)
Koichi and his mother have moved to live with her aging parents in Kagoshima, a city perched across a bay from a volcanic mountain, Sakurajima. Every morning when he wakes up, he retrieves his air-dried swimming trunks from the balcony outside only to find that they are covered with volcanic ash, which he disgustedly knocks off. He fastidiously wipes down the floor mats in his room, as if to express his hatred of the entire situation.
In semi-secretive phone calls to his little brother Ryu (Maeda’s real-life little brother Oshirô, equally geeky and winning) — who’s living in Osaka with their musician/lie-about father — Koichi tries to persuade him to conspire to bring their parents back together. As much as he misses his brother, the happy-go-lucky Ryu appears less eager to reunite their parents, for reasons we see only gradually.
Nor are children the only ones who believe in some form of magic. Koichi’s parents separated because his father (Jô Odagiri, aka total hearthrob) put more effort into his music than earning a living — a fool’s errand if ever there was one. An elderly couple spends an evening pretending that perhaps that sweet child really is their grandchild, the child of their long-gone daughter. Koichi’s ham-fisted homeroom teacher, Mr. Sakagami (Hiroshi Abe, hearthrob x2) believes with one clunky gesture that he might serve as a father figure for the boy. Once we start to see the full landscape of wishes, foolish hopes, and magical thinking, we realize that there are so many competing and contradictory wishes swirling around the universe that they kind of cross each other out.
I’ve only seen three of Kore-eda’s elegant films, yet I’m completely in love with his vision. The best was Still Walking (2008), with its tense family reunion of people disappointed with one another. Kore-eda has a way with children, as he showed in Nobody Knows (2004), a wrenching film about a family of children effectively abandoned in a tiny apartment by their mother whose best (worst) advice was to remain under the radar of neighbors and the authorities. I Wish is sweeter, gentler, more evocative — and his two main stars, the Maeda brothers, have a grace before the camera that feels magical on its own.
This film feels so much kinder than this director’s previous films that its ultimate themes of reconciliation and realization sneak in slowly. On some level, we start to see that we engage in magical thinking at the very same time that we are realists. It’s one of the gentlest films about existence I’ve seen. But just because its protagonists aren’t faced with life and death terrors doesn’t mean the stakes are low, or that the director has nothing important and original to say.
Frankly, after seeing films that put their child characters at serious risks, it was a relief to see these children permitted to be children, given the gift of wishing without the horrors of what I think of as “movie reality” dashing all their innocence to shreds.
I will also say that this film benefits from subtlety and the specificity of culture — one must watch carefully, rather than get distracted during the bits that might look slow to someone used to over-caffeinated Hollywood fare. It feels quite Japanese, with its references to karukan cake and Japanese baseball heroes and J-TV that most Americans won’t recognize.
But I hope you watch it anyway and let the unfamiliar bits wash over you while you focus on the director’s larger themes (as well as those impossibly wonderful Maeda brothers). I loved this film, and am now working to find a way to see Kore-eda’s back catalogue of directorial efforts.
Meanwhile, for those of you awaiting Hurricane Sandy’s wrath: good luck!