Hirokazu Kore-eda (2011)
BY THE END OF CELEBRATED DIRECTOR Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delightful 2011 fable I Wish, two preteen brothers, living in different towns with their separated parents, will have traveled across the Japanese countryside with a gaggle of school friends to watch two bullet trains speed past each other at a new track point. They have heard that when the trains meet, “Because of the intense energy, whoever sees it, their wish will come true.”
It is the elder of the brothers (played by real-life siblings Koki and Oshiro Maeda), the conservative twelve-year-old Koichi, whose yearning to see his family reunited spurs their adventure. The younger brother, Ryunosuke, a live-wire but also more of a pragmatist, recognizes that this would not be for the best. Though he is less mature in almost every other respect, he is wiser than Koichi about his parents’ marriage. We’re shown Ryunosuke’s memory of their parents shouting over the dining table and Koichi caught up in it all, while completely unnoticed, Ryi has slipped away with his bowl to eat elsewhere. As far as Ryi is concerned, Koichi has a rose-colored view of their family life together, and Ryi has no desire to return to what he remembers. But both boys hope to meet up, and their plan attracts followers.
I Wish is a charming and rather slow-burning tale about childhood dreams, and it succeeds at capturing the moment when youthful innocence dissolves. The focus on the preteen years has a touching accuracy: the children’s heads remain full of fantasy and wonder even as they are beginning to understand life’s reality.
Kore-eda has explained: “Children think that everything is possible, and everything is centered around them. But it doesn’t last past a certain age. When something is lost, we think it’s sad and depressing, and we view it as a negative event. But we call it ‘growing up.’ I think it is wondrous.”
What makes Kore-eda’s tale worthwhile for grown-ups is that his vision is so inclusive. The film’s Japanese title is Kiseki, or “miracle,” and as far as Kore-eda is concerned, the miracle happens whenever loss and growth occur at the same time, at any age: “Human life too is a continuous miracle if you look at it that way. Not just for children.”
Throughout I Wish, we see adults come alive to new experiences. Age, we come to realize, need not quell new beginnings and new joys, even as adult responsibilities bring limitations and the years bring disappointments. In one lovely sequence, in a small town near the track point, the sweet, pretty Megumi arrives on the doorstep of an elderly couple, pretending she is their granddaughter who lives far away. They know full well she’s lying, but they nevertheless invite her and her young friends to stay the night. As the children set off the following morning, one of the girls runs back to ask if the couple wants anything wished for themselves. They can only respond: “We couldn’t have asked for anything better than yesterday.” Their act of hospitality was repaid by the vitality and color the young strangers brought into their home.
The genius and depth of I Wish lie not simply in capturing the way life’s wonder can appear at any time, if we only open our eyes to it. Kore-eda also recognizes the way new joys can find space amid our struggles. We don’t always get what we want, but that need not be the end of our story. (Interestingly, I Wish is now the first in a trilogy of compassionate films Kore-eda has made about blended or divided families, followed by Like Father, Like Son in 2013 and Our Little Sister in 2015.)
Open-hearted artists understand that something not working out as planned does not mean the exercise was futile. Serendipity is part of the creative process. When Koichi’s grandfather, a retired cake maker, tries a new recipe, the result has neither the color nor flavor he expected. At first Koichi is disappointed, but over time he will come to appreciate such subtle surprises—a hint of a newfound maturity that began to emerge at the track point.
As the trains pass, the children scream their wishes through the security fence, expressing different stages of childhood. Some are mundane (“I want to run faster!”); others speak of confusion and heartache (“Make Dad quit gambling!”)—and we cannot be sure any of them truly believe their wishes will come true. In the communal shouting, each child has expressed his most personal desires. They are prayers of a sort, cries in the dark, dreams, wishes, hopes—or moments of acceptance.
As with Kore-eda’s earlier acclaimed After Life (1998), in which recently departed people get to choose one memory from their lives to carry for eternity, we are shown the value of certain tiny moments. These children will always recall their wish by the side of the railway, and the journey to that experience and what unexpectedly emerged at that moment prove vital steps towards maturity. The world of dreams, desires, and wishes is shown to be an integral part of life’s journey.
Catherine von Ruhland is a film critic who has contributed to The Independent, New Internationalist, Third Way, Church Times, and New Christian Herald. She blogs about Christmas in the movies at kissbangchristmas.wordpress.com.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.