"I Wish" is an old-fashioned kind of movie about a subject that might sound, at first, both worn-out and a little retrograde: the dislocating and disorienting effects of a family breakup. It's also a movie whose principal actors and characters are children, that tries to view the world from a child's point of view -- and that's an enterprise so perilous, so prone to easy gags, cheap tears and nauseating sentimentality, that hardly anyone ever gets it right. But "I Wish" is a wonderful adventure film that's no less thrilling for its modest scale, and a film whose emotional power and intelligence sneak up on you. Thoroughly accessible and rewarding, it might finally mark the mainstream breakthrough (relatively speaking) of Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of the finest living Japanese directors. I should add that "I Wish" is that rarest of fauna in the international art-house market, a genuine family movie that will charm both adults and children, albeit for somewhat different reasons. If your kids have the patience for a picture with subtitles where nothing explodes, don't hesitate to bring them. (There's no sex or violence.)
As those who have seen Kore-eda's wrenching 2004 near-masterpiece "Nobody Knows" are already aware, he has a remarkable ability to work with children, and also to capture the geographical and psychological landscape of childhood, where objectively minor events can have enormous significance. (Other titles from Kore-eda's exceptionally varied oeuvre to check out: "Still Walking," "After Life" and his 1995 feature debut, "Maborosi.") In "I Wish" he captures the different worlds of two separated brothers, who both yearn (at least officially) to get their parents back together and reunite as a family. Koichi (Koki Maeda), aged around 12, is an introspective kid with a permanently stunned expression who's on the edge of teenage alienation. He lives with his mom and grandparents on the southern tip of the island of Kyushu, in the shadow of the ash-spewing volcano Sakurajima. (A major eruption, he imagines, might be just the catastrophe required to undo the divorce.) His younger brother, Ryu (played by Koki's real-life brother, Ohshiro Maeda), is an ultra-cute, gregarious kid who hangs with a posse of platonic girlfriends and lives with his kind but irresponsible indie-rock dad in the city of Fukuoka, about 175 miles to the north.
Kore-eda is often celebrated in international film circles as a throwback to the Japanese Golden Age of big-name directors like Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa -- he has said his favorite is the lesser-known Mikio Naruse, director of "Late Chrysanthemums" and "Floating Clouds" -- but there's nothing forbidding or ascetic about the precise, bittersweet childhood world of "I Wish." Indeed, according to Kore-eda, the initial inspiration came from the new bullet-train line (or "shinkansen," in Japanese) that opened last year on Kyushu -- and the first image that came into his head was that of the kids walking along the railroad track in "Stand by Me." Indeed, "I Wish" possesses the tender intimacy, mixed with the slightest tinge of grown-up irony, of some of the very best tales of childhood adventure, from Stephen King to E. Nesbit to Truffaut's "Small Change."
Koichi and Ryu, you see, have heard about a piece of shinkansen folklore: When a new train line opens, if you can observe the precise moment when two trains pass each other at high speed for the very first time, wishes can come true and miracles become possible. They'd like to believe this, and maybe partly do, but Kore-eda clearly sees that the imagination of children (and adults too) is not constrained by questions of logic or plausibility. The two boys' convoluted (and surprisingly expensive) scheme to run away overnight, along with several friends and all their wishes, becomes its own kind of miracle, and the magic it yields -- including a fairy godmother! -- is even more precious because it requires no suspension of disbelief.
Arguably, the quest for a bullet-train miracle is something of a MacGuffin in "I Wish." It's a good one, because it pays off in the end, but the real point of the movie is watching the way Kore-eda and the Maeda brothers (who also work as a kid-comedy act in Japan) capture the competing worlds of Ryu and Koichi with heartbreaking specificity. Koichi, the older of the two, is in many ways less worldly; he can't quite see that his desire to reunite the family is about as likely to happen as one friend's desire to become the next Ichiro Suzuki, or another's to grow up and marry the leggy middle-school librarian. (Like a true romantic, he doesn't notice or care that she'll be pushing 50 by the time he's legal.) As we regard Koichi through Kore-eda's sympathetic but slightly detached camera -- the cinematographer is Yutaka Yamazaki -- we both cling to his last moments of innocence and root for him to grow up and reach a more mature understanding of the world. On that knife edge of yearning and longing is this whole film balanced.
Koichi's only sustaining adult relationship is with his garrulous, chain-smoking grandpa (Isao Hashizume), who was once famous for his traditional sponge cake but now can't get the recipe right. His mother Nozomi (wonderfully played by Nene Ohtsuka) is lost in booze and self-pity after her breakup with indulgent wastrel Kenji (Joe Odagiri), who's raising Ryu in a household of benign rock 'n' roll neglect. Perhaps the most devastating scene in the entire movie is a wordless interlude when we watch Nozomi coming home from an evening out drinking with friends. Momentarily giddy, she buys an electronic flashing duck from a street vendor, but by the time she reaches her bus stop she doesn't think it's so funny anymore and gazes at it in puzzlement and anguish: Why did I buy this, and how did I get here?
Children, of course, will forgive the grown-ups in their lives almost any degree of lameness and irresponsibility if they feel loved, and Kore-eda takes somewhat the same attitude with his adult characters. Even in a slightly darker subplot involving Ryu's aspiring actress friend Megumi (Kyara Uchida) and her embittered bartending mother (Yui Natsukawa), what we see is a parent doing the best she can, who has lost the ability to see the bigger picture. (If you have kids too, you've been there and done that.) When the kids make their pilgrimage to the mystical bullet-train spot, it may not bring Ryu and Koichi back together permanently, or launch a baseball superstar's career, or bring a beloved family dog back to life. But those aren't the only forms of magic, and this marvelous work of all-ages movie craftsmanship has magic aplenty.
"I Wish" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens May 25 in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington; June 1 in Chicago, Honolulu, Palm Springs, Calif., San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; June 8 in Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix; June 14 in Bloomington, Ind.; June 15 in Minneapolis and New Orleans; and June 22 in St. Louis and Seattle, with other cities and home video to follow.