Title: I Wish
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Koki Maeda, Ohshiro Maeda, Nene Ohtsuka, Joe Odagiri, Kirin Kiki
If Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were Japanese instead of French-Belgian, or perhaps set out to craft a homage to Yasujiro Ozu that was crossed with a sort of whimsical yet melancholic version of “The Parent Trap,” it might well resemble “I Wish,” writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest effort. A tender but yawning story of childhood desires and maturation, the movie features some superlative adolescent performances, but also seems a bit caught up in its own relaxed rhythms and beatific point-of-view.
A premiere at last fall’s Toronto Film Festival that was recently featured as part of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series, “I Wish” centers on 12-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda), who lives with his mother and retired grandparents in Kagoshima, in the south of Japan. His younger brother Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda, Koki’s real-life brother) lives with their father further north, in Hakata. Wanting for his separated parents to reunite, Koichi yearns for the towering volcano that is steaming just on the edge of town to erupt — his thinking being that this would lead to an evacuation, and force his family back together. When this wish fails to come true, however, Koichi becomes focused on another scheme, and the rumor that a bullet train linking the two cities grants the wish of whomever stands at the spot exactly when northbound and southbound trains pass one another.
The best parts of “I Wish” tap into adolescent whimsy, and the guilt-free and guileless nature of childhood — of how the world and its problems seem both impossibly large and easily conquered. Cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki employs warm, soft lighting and framing that is at once unfussy yet still imaginative, allowing for the performances to remain front and center. And the Maeda boys are fantastic; warm, sympathetic and natural, but all while delivering tightly scripted fare.
Too often, though Kore-eda’s pacing lags, and seems like it might benefit from a massive editorial tightening, or even a re-conception as a short film. The inclusion of several pop songs comes across as strained, and digressive sidebars which get into Koichi’s schoolmates, or his grandfather’s rice-cake business plans tied to the impending bullet train (and others’ opinions regarding same), only serve to divert attention from the chief thematic thrust. There’s poignant truth here, it’s just surrounded by some weeds that one wishes were trimmed a bit further down, and out of sight.
Written by: Brent Simon