A spiritual and artistic successor to the late, great Japanese filmmaker Jasujirô Ozu (“Tokyo Story”), writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda once more delivers the small-scale humanism that made his “After Life,” “Still Walking” and “Nobody Knows” such gently wise experiences. As in that latter film, he once again works with a cast mainly comprising children in “I Wish.”
Twelve-year-old Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshima, under the daily drift of gray ash from a smoldering volcano across the bay. His kid brother Ryu (played by Koki’s real-life brother Ohshirô) lives far away in Fukuoka with their shaggy musician father. The parents have been separated for only six months, but strain is beginning to show, especially for Koichi, who wants his family back together.
The big regional news is the near-completion of a 160-mph bullet train. At school, Koichi overhears classmates claim that if you manage to observe, on inaugural day, one high-speed train pass another going in opposite directions, you’ll be granted your dearest wish. Why? Well, just because — in the same way that you spare your mother’s back by stepping over cracks.
Koichi’s scheme to get his wish granted by playing hooky and meeting Ryu at the spot where the trains will cross doesn’t even get formulated for a long time. “I Wish” is less about this slim spine of plot than about all the lovely details of life and mood attached to it. We follow the kids, and their classmates, as they deal with grade-school frustrations and slowly dawning dreams.
One of Koichi’s friends has a crush on the school librarian. Another wants to be a pro baseball player, but he’s mainly worried because his old dog, Marble, seems to be fading away. Up in Fukuoka, Ryu spends much of his time with a coterie of adoring girl classmates (which makes sense, because the young actor is an exuberant scene stealer, the outgoing yang to his brother’s shy yin). You may be a little lost as you try to sort out the children and the handful of adults who revolve around them. That’s OK. The movie is more an Impressionist painting than a diagram.
Ultimately, the brothers meet in the semi-industrial, semi-rural town where they’ve calculated the trains will magically pass on the following day. They’re not alone, but accompanied by friends who have their own wishes to make. There’s something lovely but alarming as we watch these children wander around unsupervised, as evening falls, with no idea where they’ll spend the night. Then you remember: this is Japan. The crime rate is not only very low there, but transgression would be seen as, well, just too rude to contemplate. The movie gives their lodging problem a poignant solution (which the kids, in their happy solipsism, scarcely appreciate).
The best moments in “I Wish” are a couple of heart-stoppingly simple montages that capture the dreams and fears of the children (and adults) we’ve started to get to know. We see, up close, gestures and objects that have previously passed by us on screen but return pregnant with emotion. Nowhere near maudlin or mawkish, the movie depicts the children’s innocence and yearning, but also their resilience and realism in the face of changes.
Yes, “I Wish” is a little too leisurely, a little too long. But it’s filled with such grace notes and finds such unexpected poetry in the mundane that it’s a wonderful way to spend two-plus hours in the theater — and have it reaffirm your faith in the world beyond its walls.
“I Wish.” Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. With Koki and Ohshirô Maeda. In Japanese with subtitles. Rated PG. 128 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.