I remember when I was a kid and tried to fool the school nurse into thinking I was sick. She was having none of it – before sending me back to class, she sized me up within seconds – and my friend who was actually sick looked at me with angry fatigue. Towards the end of Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish, a group of Japanese boys try to deceive their nurse in the same way. They’re more successful than I was because of how the nurse treats the boys. In Koreeda’s world, many grown-ups are happy to help kids preserve their sense of adventure.
Brothers Koichi (Koki Maeda) and Ryu (Ohshirô Maeda) live far apart after their parents separate. Koichi, the older one, now stays with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka ) and grandparents in a small town, one where an active volcano looms in the distance. Ryu, who is about eight, remains in Osaka with his indie rock musician dad (Jô Odagiri). News of a new bullet drain captures the imagination of everyone in Koichi’s town, and he gets a strange idea: if he makes a wish as he watches the trains pass for the first time, the wish will come true. Koichi resolves to witness the crossing, and wishes for his family to reunite. He recruits Ryu to join him, and both brothers have friends in tow.
Koichi’s ideas would not happen without his parents splitting apart, and through one crucial flashback, we see the effect the parents had on their children. In a fit of anger, Mom throws her food at Dad, screaming at him because he just quit his job. It’s a surprisingly rough scene, but what matters is how the brothers react. Koichi steps between his parents, acting as an unlikely mediator, while Ryu quietly shuffles away so he can block out their argument. It’s a short scene, yet it carefully defines the family dynamics.
Koreeda is no stranger to wishes and hypothetical ideas. In his 1998 film After Life, recently deceased characters must choose one memory to take with them to the beyond. With I Wish, the big questions are less are not supernatural but still remain important. There is a long sequence where Koichi, Ryu, and their friends ask each other what they want to be when they grow up. I have little doubt that Koreeda filmed the actual answers of his cast, as the kids are less self-aware in this scene compared to others.
Weaving fiction with documentary is a canny way for Koreeda to depict everyday life, so his drama feels organic even when the plot points are not so plausible. The climax of I Wishhappens when the brother and friends run away from home. After nightfall, an elderly couple protects the kids (who they’ve never met) from the police out of the goodness of their heart, and the unlikely subterfuge feels right because Koreeda finds understated humanity in all his characters. His consistent mastery of tone has us smiling even if we know they shouldn’t be getting away with it.
Children are the most important characters, yet the adults are more than just their accomplices. Through multiple sub-plots, Koreeda shows us their hopes and hang-ups. Ryu’s friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida) dreams of becoming an actress, but her has-been mother (Yui Natsukawa) wants Megumi to share her unhappiness. Koichi’s grandfather (Isao Hashizume) tries to develop the perfect pastry, getting Koichi hooked on them in the process. No one experiences moments of triumph, exactly, though the script wraps each plotline with honest poignancy. American family dramas typically have grand melodramatic gestures, whereas Koreeda is patient enough to resist that impulse. He elicits naturally likable performances from his actors, so their low-key epiphanies are appropriately moving. Despite the subtitles, I Wish is the sort of warm-hearted treat that parents and their precocious children will savor equally.