There’s a difference between childish and childhood dreams and Hirokazu Koreeda’s “I Wish” (奇跡 Kiseki), is about dreams children can have at a certain age that could become real. You could view the movie as a modern fable, but it is really only a slight nudge to one side of reality.
The setting and timing are important here. Koreeda sets this up by showing a chunky young boy looking out at the live volcano in Kagoshima. Kagoshima (鹿児島) is a city at the southwestern tip of Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan. Kagoshima is about 600 miles from Tokyo.
While the United States has yet to build a high-speed train, Japan has has the Tokaido Shinkansen which runs between its capital Tokyo and the industrial city Shin-Osaka since 1964. Today, this lines delivers passengers from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka in 3 hours for a distance of 315 miles–a journey that by car could take about six to seven hours.
In 1972, the bullet train was extended from Shin-Osaka to Hakata, a city in the northern end of Kyushu. Yet the cities of Hakata and Kagoshima weren’t joined by a bullet train line until 12 March 2011. This reduced the travel time between the two cities from 4 hours to 2 hours (by train). Yet the event was overshadowed by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that occurred the day before (11 March 2011).
The Kyushu Hakata-Kagoshima line has the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) and the Mizuho. The Tsubame (Swallow) operated between the same cities since 1992. The Relay Tsubame, a limited express, has since been discontinued.
Koreeda introduces the location when Koichi Osako thanks his mother for breakfast as the radio talks about the famous live volcano Sakurajima in Kagoshima. Koichi looks at the smoke rising from Sakurajima and cleans up the layers of ashes. His mother (Nene Otsuka) dries dishes as his grandmother (Kirin Kiki) practices dance gestures.
Koichi is late meeting up with his friends to walk to school because of his dusting, but his two friends are used to the ashes having grown up there. Osako is his mother’s maiden name. His mother has left her husband (Joe Odagiri) and returned to her mother’s house in far away Kagoshima, leaving her younger son, Ryonosuke (Oshiro Maeda) with her husband in Fukuoka. For a young child, Fukuoka and Kagoshima seems a world away.
While Koichi seems a bit glum and serious, the younger boy, Ryonosuke Kinami (Oshiro Maeda), his younger brother, is a cheery little scamp, threatening a local takoyaki (a dumpling made with octopus bits) maker with a poor review if he doesn’t give him a discount. There’s nothing sly or sneaking, but a sparkling good spirits behind Ryonosuke’s bargaining.
Koichi is the dreamer and his younger brother the realist. In Fukuoka, the northern end of Kyushu, Ryonosuke returns home to eat his meal, mostly takoyaki, alone. Yet, he seems to be running everywhere and he doesn’t talk, he shouts, a shrill childish voice of exuberant joy. He’s providing for his family by growing plants.
At night, Koichi dreams of the Tower of the Sun park. The Tower of the Sun was originally built in for the Expo ’70 in Osaka by Japanese artist Taro Okamoto. We can tell by their accent, that Koichi and Ryonosuke grew up in Osaka. Koichi hears talk that this place where the family had happy picnics might be torn down, making him, even at the age of 12, nostalgic for better times.
Ryonosuke dreams of the arguments between his parents: When his father has quit his job and tells the mother he’ll just find another, she replies that he can’t continue living like he was a student. Ryonosuke doesn’t want to live with such disharmony.
The boys keep in touch via cellphone even if their parents aren’t speaking to each other.
Koichi’s father and his band, the High Deckers, had better times, when they played and made enough money to live in Tokyo and later Osaka before returning to their hometown of Fukuoka fifteen years later. However he supports himself, the father finds he must follows his music muse. Is this childish or a justifiable determination to be true to oneself?
The title refers to the reason behind the journey Koichi and Ryonosuke decide to make with their friends. Koichi hears that a miracle is possible if you watch the Sakura trains pass for the first time and make a wish. At both ends of the Kyushu, the children begin to think of what kind of miracle they would want. Koichi wants Sakurajima to erupt and destroy Kagoshima, forcing his family to live together again. Ryonosuke’s wish is for himself to find fame which mirrors the wishes of some of his friends.
During this time, the adults are also moving forward. Koichi and Ryonosuke’s mother is practical. She needs to find work but faces age discrimination, particularly blatant against women in Japan. Her parents can’t easily support her and her oldest son, working at a small street shop. The grandfather (Isao Hashizume) with suggestions from his friends also prepares for the opening of the new bullet line, trying to think of a specialty confection one often finds at bullet train stops. Will that help his business?
As the mother renews old friendships and works as a cashier, we see the father of the two boys basically remaining the same. He performs at night. Sleeps in on mornings. Ryonosuke gardens, growing vegetables. At one point, Ryonosuke demands an allowance to take care of things, demanding that his father delay buying a new guitar for a month.
The children’s journey on the less expensive Tsubame line requires a conspiracy between the children that is aided by the adults, intentionally and as a matter of happenstance. The boys haven’t seen each other for six months and they must deal with the changes between them. It’s telling that Koichi’s brings two other boys with him while Ryonosuke brings three girls. What do the children finally wish for? Some, like Makoto, wish for the impossible but others like Megumi wants in possible.
In casting real brothers, director Koreeda’s instincts didn’t fail him. Did he listen to the actual dreams of these real children? It seems so. Although he had the basic premise for this film, he waited until the main children had been cast before he wrote the script. Everything here seems natural and not shining with polished perkiness and dripping with Disney charm. There is no happy-ending resolution.
Also key the movie’s success, particularly in Japan is the casting of an actor who embodies Japan cool. Joe Odagiri (オダギリ ジョー) who plays the father, was actually born in Okayama prefecture and is an actor musician. He’s won a Best New Actor for the 2006 “Azumi” (あずみ) and a Best Supporting Actor for 2004 “Blood and Bones” (血と骨; Chi to Hone) from the Japanese Academy. The actual soundtrack, however, is provided by the alternative rock band Quruli.
Koreeda’s film is about the common dreams of childhood and a pastoral adventure where the biggest worry is the food budget and the brief disappearance of one of the children. That might not be exciting enough for some, but in the absence of CGI and explosions, there are instead gentle revelations of what we once were and what we could become, how we make memories and grow up. The results is a family-friendly movie that should reach beyond Japan. In Japanese with English subtitles.