Returning to the worlds of family and childhood in a far sunnier vein than he did in 2004’s lauded “Nobody Knows,” eclectic, nearly fail-proof Nipponese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda has come up with what will likely be his most widely appealing feature to date in “I Wish.” This tale of two elementary-school brothers plotting to end the physical separation their parents’ divorce has forced on them effortlessly pulls off the naturalism and charm desired from material that might have easily curdled into calculated preciousness. Niche prospects in numerous territories are excellent.
Sixth grader Koichi (Koki Maeda) and his younger brother, Ryunosuke (Ohshiro Maeda), hitherto inseparable, now live far apart as their parents commence new lives — or rather, restart their old ones — after a long-brewing split. Mom Nozomi (Nene Ohtsuka) has moved herself and Koichi back in with his small-town grandparents (Isao Hashizume, Kirin Kiki), settling for a cashier’s post at the supermarket. Dad Kenji (Joe Odagiri), whose inability to hold a conventional job has always been a sore point, has moved back to the city with Ryu to resume a never-quite-successful-enough rock-musician career.
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While the adults accept this revised state of things as permanent, the boys aren’t having it — especially Koichi, who really pines for the little brother who is enjoying new friends and urban life perhaps more than his sib would like. The two seize upon a plan, trusting in a belief that if one makes a wish at exactly the place and moment that two new bullet trains first pass each other, said wish will come true.
Meeting midway to accomplish that deed, however, requires expensive train tickets, a 24-hour absence from school and home, the participation of several peers and other logistical orchestrations pretty complex for kids of their age. When the day finally arrives, our expanded team of children (all with their own wishes to make) duly have an excellent adventure, though Kore-eda doesn’t hand them the kind of conventional, sentimental resolution one might expect. Instead, they come through with the beginnings of adult awareness that life, and even wishes, are highly prone to change as one goes along.
Before that happens, however, there are a number of subplots to attend to, such as the dislike Koichi and friends harbor toward a harsh-seeming but actually well-intentioned teacher (Hiroshi Abe), while they’re smitten with a sweet-natured librarian (Masami Nagasawa). The group of girls who adopt Ryu as mascot include a would-be actress (Kyara Uchida) whose mother (Yui Natsukawa) failed in that profession and bitterly discourages her daughter’s hopes. While the boys’ grandma takes hula lessons, Grandpa and his boozing pals mull whether to alter a traditional sponge-cake recipe as a novelty tie-in to the bullet-train hoopla.
Never showy in storytelling or technique, “I Wish” builds a credible child’s-eye view of everyday events, making the remarkable ones seem equally uncontrived. Juvenile performers (all non-pros save the two leads, who already had a sibling comedy act called MaedaMaeda) are faultless, and the grown-ups, most of them culled from prior Kore-eda casts, are ideally restrained.
A considerable plus in the fine technical package is a sprightly soft-rock score by band Quruli that, like everything else here, thoroughly ingratiates without reaching for cuteness or sentimentality.