Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda has always been an astute, patient observer of all human behavior, but between 2004's Nobody Knows — about four kids abandoned by their flaky mother — and his new film, I Wish, his greatest gift as a filmmaker seems to be his capacity to work with children. Koreeda doesn't direct them so much as let them react to the universe he has created.
The siblings at the center of his latest work, played by real-life brothers Koki and Ohshiro Maeda, often seem oblivious to the cameras around them, especially when they're alone. Whether painting fantastical landscapes or planning a secret trip, the kids exude an unforced naturalism that's a rare, marvelous thing. It's this child's-eye view of the world — and the director's appreciation of it — that makes the premise of I Wish, one that should be intolerably schmaltzy, actually work.
Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) is living in the south of Kyushu island with his mother, Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka). His younger brother Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda) is with his father, Kenji (Joe Odagiri), in the north. Their parents have been separated for six months, and all Koichi wants is for his family to be reunited. So he hatches a plan: to make a wish on the initial run of the soon-to-be-completed bullet train, which will speed from one end of the island to the other. He has been told that when the northbound and southbound trains pass each other for the first time, the intense energy will be enough to make miracles happen.
Koichi's wish is not simply for his family to get back together. With his serious face and roundly prepubescent body, the boy is struggling to adjust to his new home and his new roommates — his elderly grandparents — so he wishes that the nearby volcano will erupt, destroy the town, and force him and his mom to move. His perpetually cheerful sibling is having a better time, though Ryunosuke often seems more responsible than his should-be caretaker dad, a sleepy musician still trying to make it big. Although the pair's plan to meet at the point where the trains cross is the throughline of the film, long segments let it go and are instead devoted to the brothers' individual lives, jumping back and forth between them as they spend time with their friends and grow to accept their new surroundings.
Running home from the pool with a towel flapping behind like a cape, lighting fireworks in the street, gathering seeds from flowers by the road, standing open-mouthed in the shower, stealing the bell off a beloved teacher's bike in order to be the one to return it to her: I Wish makes us feel like we are watching these kids discover each new sensory pleasure of youth for the first time, or that we're experiencing them ourselves. And though Koreeda's style is gentle and meandering, he isn't soft on his characters, particularly the adults, a pleasingly imperfect bunch with emotional vulnerabilities of their own. This lack of sentimentality when it comes to the parent-child relationship allows for some stealthy devastation, as when a tipsy Nozomi calls Ryunosuke and is told, without rancor, that he didn't come with her because, "You think I'm just like Dad, so I was afraid you wouldn't like me."
It's only the intrusively jaunty soundtrack, from the Japanese band Quruli, that tugs a little too hard on the reins — I Wish otherwise allows its performances to guide its journey, both literally to a town at the midpoint of the region and emotionally to a coming-of-age moment. It feels loose, but has a structure that reveals itself after the fact. "I want you to grow up to be someone who cares about more than just your own life," Koichi's father tells him on the phone, succinctly summarizing the film's definition of maturity, which is less about achieving a dream than accepting one's place in the larger world, as messy, sad and wonderful as it can be.