“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!

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For a couple of weeks now I’ve been in close contact with a former grad student who’s been looking for a salaried academic job for five years. Such a long time on the academic job market isn’t uncommon anymore, but it seems worse to her because last winter she finally signed a contract for a good job, only to have the university renege on the contract (they claimed statewide budget cuts). No wonder she’s now full of a terrible bundle of resentment, defensiveness, and misplaced shame. No wonder she has a hard time working up the energy to start applying all over again.

The problem she’s facing is that all those resentments bubble up to the surface and inflect her interviews. When one interviewer asked her recently about how her book manuscript was coming along, she blurted out, “I’ve been adjuncting for up to six classes a semester taught at three universities spread out over 110 miles! Sometimes I drive four hours a day just to get to and from class!” Another interviewer asked why she’d want a job at his third-tier school in Nebraska, and she said, “In this job market? you can’t seriously be asking me that question!” These are, of course, not the “right” answers. Even though we all learned at some point to maintain perfect composure and patience during interviews, she’s suffered such long-term trauma about work that she’s lost that mask—and losing it has caused her to suffer even more a sense of failure and frustration. Every single conversation brings up all that bile, to her detriment.

Thus, long-term trauma has thus been on my mind lately—and we know from our Psych 101 classes that it begins with the family, which is where it appears in the beautiful, acidic, funny film Still Walking (Aruitemo, Aruitemo), easily one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda takes as his subject the gathering together of two 40-something siblings and their families at the home of their aging parents, a gathering oriented around the commemoration of the siblings’ beloved oldest brother’s death a dozen years earlier.

What seems at first glance to be mundane is fraught with meaning. The siblings’ 70ish mother (Kirin Kiki) cooks constantly and somewhat frantically, varying her conversation between cheerful gossip and firm instructions about recipe preparation, with occasional dips into disapproval and superstition. The father, a retired doctor (Yoshio Harada), locks himself in his examination room with undisguised crankiness. Their grown daughter (You) has already arrived with her cheerful RV-selling husband and their rambunctious and good-hearted children, all of whom behave like they’re ready to appear in a sitcom about an ideal family.

They are waiting for the arrival of their second son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who’s not ready for any sitcom at all. There’s a list of the ways Ryo is not looking forward to this visit. First, his job as an art restorer is so tenuous that he spends most of his time on the phone seeking out new work; there is no way he’s going to tell his parents that he’s struggling to pay the bills. Let’s not even talk about the fact that he’s not a doctor like his father, a longstanding source of serious friction. Second, he has married a widow (Yui Natsukawa) with a young son from her first marriage, an act that his mother pronounces unlucky. Why couldn’t he have married a divorcée, they mutter when he’s not around. And finally–most important, if you ask Ryo–he’s always going to be the second son, second in their love forever, always behind his long-dead brother. In other words, this is a visit like every other family visit: everyone walks around with their nerves on full alert, like very long cat’s whiskers on a hair-trigger response system.

And so they begin the frantic attempt to tick away the hours. Aside from the ritualistic trip to the cemetery there’s not much to do, so they spend it eating, eating, eating. They talk about eating, and in between they say unconsidered things to one another. Ryo’s father reluctantly emerges from his room for dinner, only to offend Ryo’s eager-to-please wife. Meanwhile, Ryo is so wrapped up with his own resentments that he fails to notice that his parents are treating his adopted son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), so formally that he may as well be a stranger.

Beautiful, weird, chilling, funny, cringe-making–the Yokoyamas might as well be your family. Roger Ebert calls Kore-eda one of the finest living directors in the world and the true heir to Yasujirō Ozu, who developed such eloquent, complex views of human relations. Me? I’m going to hunt down every single one of Kore-eda’s films on my path to deciding whether I agree.