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Earning a place alongside other Japanese charmers like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Kikujiro, Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish conveys the magic of childhood.

Bullet Trains In-Between

Osako and Ryu are separated by a bullet train
Osako and Ryu are separated by a bullet train

Two brothers - maybe 8 or 9 years old - each live with a different parent. Koichi, the elder brother, lives with mom and grandparents while Ryu lives with their musician father.

Koreeda, the writer/director of After Life, and Nobody Knows — another film with major performances from child actors, takes his time introducing the characters. Koki Maeda plays the serious and responsible brother, Koichi. He has a nice teacher who, when he learns Koichi doesn’t have a father, offers to take him under his wing. His grandfather sits with friends in the evenings, discussing ways to make money. Maybe they could revive a favorite sponge cake from when they were growing up. Will kids today like it? Maybe Koichi can try it and let them know. The bullet train is coming in 2 months’ time, so maybe they could call it Bullet Train Cake. They live in Kagoshima where a volcano has been coating the city in ash.

Ryu is the younger brother (played by real-life brother Ohshirô Maeda) and he lives with his musician father. He’s very outgoing, loves to swim, and has lots of friends. I’m sure he loves his brother and mother, but he seems happy no matter where he is or whose company he keeps. He has just planted some vegetables in the garden down in Osaka where he lives.

After the lengthy setup the title becomes more clear. Koichi says that when the bullet train comes to town, it will travel at more than 200 miles per hour. And when it passes the oncoming bullet train from the other direction, anyone who watches the two trains pass can make a wish, like a shooting star.

Joy

Judging from some of the Japanese films I’ve seen, there seems to be a unique style of storytelling about magical childhood. I wonder if the style has a name? In these movies, every adult can be trusted and is only too happy to make a child’s adventure seem all the more real. Kiki’s Delivery Service has a 12-year-old girl leaving home to work for a year so that she can become a witch. Kikujiro has Takeshi Kitano (think Clint Eastwood) taking his neighbor’s 9-year-old son on a road trip to search for a lost parent.

Likewise, in I Wish, the two brothers conspire to leave school, travel to a city halfway between their two towns, and watch the maiden voyage of the bullet train. They can’t do that without some conspiratorial help from the adult authority figures whose job is precisely to stop kids from doing this sort of thing. Yet it’s impossible not to feel joy at the thought of playing along with these creative children as they plan some magical adventure that they will remember the rest of their lives.

Each brother has two or three friends joining him for the moment of wishing. Only one of them wishes for more toys. I won’t give them away, but the other wishes are endearing, touching, insightful, and not too cloying — at least not for me.

Koreeda finds a way to end the movie, granting some wishes but not others, and having the brothers confess to each other that maybe they changed their wishes at the last minute, and that maybe they’ll be able to stay close even thought they live far apart.