In the hierarchy of Hirokazu Kore-eda films, I Wish falls just short of the imaginative, poignant fantasy After Life, the heartbreaking abandoned children story Nobody Knows, and the keenly observed family drama Still Walking. I Wish is shallower and cuter than those three; it’s a movie about kids that at times feels like it's more for kids, with its peppy, twangy score and scenes of schoolchildren goofing off adorably. But I Wish is still amply Kore-eda-esque, full of life, heart, and funny little details about daily existence, as it meanders its way toward moments of real profundity.
Ostensibly the story of Koki and Ohshirô Maeda, two grade-school-aged brothers separated by their parents’ divorce, I Wish also weaves in the story of the Maeda boys’ parents (one a shopgirl, one an indie-rocker), their grandparents (who are trying to come up with a confection to sell when the new train begins stopping in their town), and their various friends and classmates. The title refers to Koki Maeda’s hope that a nearby volcano will erupt, forcing his family to reunite. To expedite this, he plans to play hooky and make an excursion to a spot where two bullet trains pass each other at top speed, which the school rumor mill insists will generate such force that it’ll make wishes come true. And he demands that his younger brother meet him there, even though Ohshirô is perfectly happy with life in Hakata with their slacker dad, where he gets to stay up late eating potato chips.
As the brothers and their friends prep their trip and their wishes—one wants to be an actress, one a baseball player, etc.—Kore-eda follows them in a leisurely, at times unstructured manner. He seems more interested in the proper recipe for karukan cake and the morning ritual of brushing away the accumulated volcano ash than he is in getting the Maedas and their respective entourages to where they’re supposed to be going. But though all the little subplots and side trips of I Wish are fairly minor, they gain in meaning in a touching climactic montage of all the places and objects shown over the previous two hours. As the children yell out their wishes, all at once, the simple shots of family, food, and small gestures serve as a reminder of how people first decide what they really want in life, and how they then spend the rest of their lives changing their minds.