(Hirokazu Koreeda, 2011)
Koreeda has emerged over the last decade as one of the leading directors in world cinema, with a distinctive, subtle voice. Still Walking, his Ozu-like 2008 family drama, may well be his masterpiece, but even when working in a more minor key, as in I Wish, he proves more than capable of crafting an immensely poignant, beautifully observed story of childhood and family.
I Wish centres on two young brothers, Ryu and Koichi. Their parents separated 6 months before and they live apart, in different cities, with one parent each, talking on their mobile phones every week or so. Koichi is older and more sensitive; he wants the family back together again. Ryu is wilder and more happy-go-lucky - though he misses his brother and mother, he enjoys his new life and friends. Still, he supports Koichi's plan to observe the moment when the new bullet trains linking their cities will pass for the first time, believing that at this moment, wishes will be granted. From this premise, Koreeda spins a story which is wide-ranging and intimate, taking in dozens of minor characters and illuminating their lives for a few moments at a time as he depicts the boys different lives, their relationships with friends, parents and teachers, as well as their friends' families and parents. We watch Koichi's grandfather - a retired baker - attempt to create a new cake to compete with a popular new bakery chain after a drunken night with his friends, and his father's band endlessly tune up. Meanwhile one of Ryu's friends wants to be an actress but is jealous of the pretty girl in her class with similar ambitions, being denied the consolation of disliking or badmouthing the girl, since she is so pleasant. Then there is the elderly couple who take in the children on the night of their adventure and are reminded of their own daughter, long grown up and gone. All of these stories and more move slowly across the screen, and Koreeda gives each character some inner life, a spark of truth and mystery which is utterly convincing and affecting.
As ever, his gaze is calm and precise, his storytelling measured. He keeps his visuals cool and neutral, without a single showy element, alternating nicely composed medium and close-up shots, emphasising the ordered, layered world of the Japanese suburbs the boys ands their friends move through. The acting is beautifully naturalistic throughout, not least from the fantastic children in the cast. They create some big laughs with their immediate responses - there is a lot of Edward Yang in this film, from its effortlessly multi-stranded narrative to its warm, gentle tone of quiet amusement and melancholy.
The sequence where the children arrive at a vantage point to observe the trains passing - which has a little deadpan suggestion of childrens adventure films to it, with its detailed account of their heist-like preparations and their mildly desperate search for shelter at night - is marked by a lovely montage of images of the moments and objects which have led Koichi to this instant, signalling a moment of growth, maturity and acceptance for him.
The film is full of moments of quiet truth and beauty, of emotions held in check and little acts of kindness, of affection and understanding. Koreeda may well be the greatest humanist at work in contemporary cinema, and we are blessed that his skill as a writer and director is so well-matched with his sensibility.
This is a lovely film.