Movie lovers step into theaters hoping to tap into a power said to hover there, something rumored to fulfill even desires that can’t be named; and sometimes the characters who come and go on screen engage in a similar folly. I recall the men, grotesque and flailing surrogates of moviegoers, who venture into the indefinable Zone of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where they expect their dreams will mysteriously become real; and now, welcoming examples in a sunnier mode, I greet the children in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish (opening in New York City on May 11), a film that gently endorses magical thinking by offering a touch of wonder of its own.
The gentleness should not be taken for granted. I Wish is a movie about kids knocking around by themselves; and the last time Kore-eda showed that sort of thing, in Nobody Knows, the story was devastating. Here, too, the potential for catastrophe is always near. It drifts visibly into the opening shots of I Wish in the form of smoke and ash, which billow from a neighboring volcano into the city of Kagoshima, in the far south of Japan. Koichi (Koki Maeda), the chubby, brush-haired boy who is the story’s instigating character, cannot understand how everybody calmly goes about living under this continual threat. “I don’t get it,” he says in his characteristic phrase, and also doesn’t get why his parents split up; why he can’t ever see his younger brother, Ryu (Ohshiro Maeda); why he has to be stuck with his mother (Nene Ohtsuka) in a nothing town like Kagoshima; and why his grandfather (Isao Hashizume) obsesses over an improbable scheme to go into business selling flavorless pastries.
Financial hardship, provincial stultification, loneliness, domestic rancor: these ongoing troubles are introduced early in I Wish, along with the all-encompassing menace of natural disaster. Were Kore-eda to be truthful about them in the manner of Nobody Knows, the worst would happen. But this time he’s out to affirm a different truth: that most children somehow grow up despite everything, in a process that might not fulfill many wishes but is nevertheless (to cite the Japanese title of I Wish) something like a miracle.
The trick is to make that miracle visible to the audience—or, rather, to get Koichi to notice its dailiness (as ghosts learned to do in Kore-eda’s masterpiece, After Life). The problem is that Koichi’s sight is blocked by his habit of being glum, ungainly and dutiful. By contrast, Ryu (here the movie jumps lightly, with the speed of a cellphone call, to the city of Fukuoka) is impish and piping but equally blinkered, in his case by a determination to seem happy no matter what. Little Ryu has to stay cheerful; he looks after himself, in conditions that approach squatterdom, while his dad (Joe Odagiri) goes on failing in a career as a rock musician. So Ryu chatters on energetically, even when his mother is weeping to him over the phone, while Koichi (in the time-honored fashion of quiet, deeply thoughtful boys) constructs a shrine to the volcano and prays for it to obliterate Kagoshima so he doesn’t have to live there anymore. Nobody’s observing much of anything.
The vehicle that opens the boys’ eyes, and those of their friends, is the new bullet train, running on a line that has just reached southern Japan. According to information circulating in Koichi’s school, the wave energy generated when bullet trains pass one another is so intense that whoever witnesses this intersection of forces will be granted a wish. So Koichi schemes with his buddies to cut school and conspires to meet Ryu and his friends at a promising spot along the line. Each kid has a wish to pursue, confessed to Kore-eda’s camera in quasi-documentary style—seven kids in all. Taken together, with their backpacks and bobbling, irregular heights, they are a wave of energy in themselves, one that continually clusters, disperses and reassembles (often trailed by a hand-held camera), flooding I Wish with youthful hope and transforming the whole second half of the film into a nonstop smile.