Judge William Lee wishes he may, wishes he might, have a good DVD to watch tonight.
They wished for a miracle.
I Wish is like a gentler, Japanese version of Stand By Me wherein a group of friends have an adventure following train tracks and do some growing up along the way. However, that comparison doesn't do justice to a movie that knows kids are more complex and smarter than they let on. As with Hirokazu Kore-eda's previous works, this film takes its time to unfold but staying on this ride until it reaches its destination is worth it.
Facts of the Case
Two brothers live in separate towns since their parents' divorce. Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother and grandparents in the south. His younger brother Ryu (Ohshiro Maeda) lives in the north with their musician father. Koichi desperately wants the family to reunite but he knows it will require a miracle. When he gets the idea that two high-speed trains passing in opposite directions will create a surge of power that will grant wishes, he sets out with a group of friends to witness the first run of a new bullet train.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a master at observing the small details of everyday Japanese life. As he did with Nobody Knows, he gets great naturalistic performances from a cast of kids in this movie. Each one of the children feels like a fully fleshed out character with an individual history (though we only really get to know three of them). Through much of the movie, it feels like we're seeing real kids interacting rather than watching trained youngsters mug for the camera. The director remembers what it is like to look at the world through kids' eyes.
Real-life siblings, who have won fame in Japan as a comedy team, play the brothers but in their movie debut, Koki and Ohshiro Maeda play it mostly straight. Koichi has a more serious temperament and he is deeply saddened by his parents' split. In his new hometown, Kagoshima, he wonders how everyone can put up with regularly cleaning off the volcanic ash that slowly accumulates on everything. "I don't get it," he ponders aloud, "why is everyone so calm when the volcano's erupting?" Koichi's wish, if he can get to see the trains crossing in time, is for Sakurajima to erupt so his mother will be forced to move back in with his father. The younger and always smiling Ryu seems to be adjusting much better to the new situation and he's always surrounded by a group of friends. In a dream, he remembers what it was like to see his parents fighting. He doesn't want a return to that situation but he agrees to his brother's wishful scheme probably because it sounds like a fun adventure.
Koichi brings two friends and Ryu is accompanied by three to the town where the trains will cross. Of these pals, we learn the most about Megumi (Kyara Uchida), an older girl with aspirations of becoming an actress (her wish) if only she could gain more confidence. Another boy wishes to be a professional baseball player and a girl wants to draw better. Jump cut editing in the scenes where the kids talk about what they'd wish for suggests some of the performances were probably improvised. Whatever Kore-eda's directing style for young actors, he manages to get performances that feel real and thoughtful.
No one questions the logic of making a wish at the trains' crossing. At that age, you believe in miracles. This adventure is just another part of their journey growing up but the movie doesn't hammer home any lessons or easily summed-up revelations. Disappointments and compromises slowly sink in but small victories are also won.
The movie exists in a safe world where the children have the space and freedom for an adventure. Collecting money to buy their train tickets happens pretty easily. The kindness of adults (including complete strangers) also makes their journey go smoothly. Koichi's grandfather recruits the boy to help him develop the best recipe for karukan cakes and they bond through this. When it comes time for the secret trip, the grandfather is more than happy to help create a cover story. When Koichi's mother asks about his whereabouts, the grandfather assures her not only that he's safe but also that he's doing something he must do. I don't know how common it is in Japan for kids in their early teens to make a secret overnight trip to a new town without enlisting adult support but Koichi and his friends make it happen like it's no big deal. It's not the first sign that they're wiser than we think.
The DVD sports a wholly respectable technical presentation. The picture is slightly soft at times but it's free of any physical blemishes or compression problems. Colors are consistently strong and skin tones have a healthy warm tone. The movie can look slightly dim in the interior scenes but that may be intentional in accordance with the realistic lighting style—the town exists under a plume of volcanic ash after all. The audio is mostly a front and center affair even though the disc features a 5.1 surround mix. Voices come through clearly while sound effects like a passing train or a band playing in a club occasionally kick up the surround channels. The musical score incorporates lots of western-influenced guitar, which also keeps the surround speakers alive at a handful of louder moments. Unfortunately, the disc doesn't contain any extras specific to the movie.
I Wish is a gentle but thoughtful kids' adventure that feels grounded in reality but still preserves that youthful hope in the miraculous. Kore-eda's movie about growing up also recognizes the resourcefulness and resilience of children. The movie is recommended despite the bare bones DVD release.
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Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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