Age of Wonder, by David Bax
In films concerning children, it is often impossible to start the story until after the adults have gone away. Kids may require their elders for most life-sustaining necessities but the true world of a child exists apart from grown-ups. The inner life of young people – and the movies based on that life – can only be understood through their own eyes. Few filmmakers understand that like Hirokazu Koreeda, whose new film, I Wish, is like a deceptively lighthearted take on Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, except that where Reiner employed blatant emotional cues to push his characters and audience to their revelations, Koreeda uses small moments of touching observation to draw you along.
The plot, to the extent that it exists, doesn’t really show up until the film’s second half. The premise is that twelve-year-old Koichi lives with his mother in one city and his younger brother Ryu lives with their father in another. Both long for nothing more than to be together like they were before their parents split. When the building of a new bullet train connecting the two points is announced, Koichi develops a plan that may be short on logic but is undeniable in its simple beauty. He and Ryu, along with their friends – all unable to afford a ticket on the new train itself – will make their way to the one small town where the northbound and southbound bullets will pass. The rarity and brevity of the occurrence, mixed with the awesome power of the speeding machinery, will create the energy to grant wishes. If they can shout their desires at the passing cars, their dreams will come true.
As the older of the two brothers, Koichi is Koreeda’s star. He is a shy boy, robbed of social confidence by the absence of his father but smarter than most kids his age; perhaps smarter than he is even given credit for. Among his trio of outsiders, he occupies something of an authority position. He possesses a wise-beyond-his-years practicality that he would seem to have inherited from the mother and grandmother with whom he lives, yet he maintains the naivety of his age (hence the wish-making plan).
Ryu, on the other hand, has none of Koichi’s reticence in the face of the world. In fact, he often seems unaware the world is even there, beyond the immediate happiness of those closest to him. Ryu has an unmoored heart and is filled with compassion. His impulsive musician father seems the perfect companion to the boy but those of us cursed with the wisdom of experience can’t help but fear for the child’s future under the care of a man who lives with little concern beyond the present.
What the two have in common is chiefly a love for one another, despite Koichi’s standard older brother annoyance during their frequent phone conversations. Beyond that, though, they also share – with each other and with most children – a point of view filled with nearly boundless potential, as well as an existence on the precipice of the understanding that the world is much bigger than they are, that everyone else has yearnings and woes just like theirs. That truth, as interpreted by Koreeda, is terribly mundane and impossibly beautiful.
Koreeda is simultaneously an intimate filmmaker devoid of flashiness and a crafter of images that make ingenious use of the film’s frame. In the eyes of a child, the world was built for giants; everything is powerfully cinematic. His use of editing is similarly seductive. I Wish is over two hours long but it glides forward at such a consistent pace that you don’t feel the time passing. It is so sly about bringing you to the dramatic crescendo that its arrival is a breathtaking surprise.
There are adults in this film but even when they are onscreen alone, we are seeing them through the filter of childhood. When the assembled groups arrive in the central destination, they are aided by an older local couple. This exploration of the contradictory nature of kids’ relationships to adults – their reflexive dependence on them and their need to define themselves independently – is one of the movie’s strongest themes. Stronger, though (and handled deftly as to avoid mawkishness), is the unpretentious assertion that grown-ups never fully lose that childlike wonder. They just find it in smaller places, when they can. We may have more freedom from authority, I Wish contends, but they have freedom of imagination and the promise of possibility.