Despite being about a young boy hoping to reunite his broken family by a wish upon the Japanese National Railways’ new high-speed line (which co-financed the film), it’s impossible to read the drama I Wish as a work of sickening pap. (And that’s considering a plaintive guitar score and some twee pop songs, too.) No shock, though, coming from director Hirokazu Koreeda. An Ozu disciple of minimalist filmmaking and minimalist emotions, his schtick is tackling overtly sentimental subjects—grief (Maborosi , death (After Life), abandoned children (Nobody Knows), family (Still Walking)—only to gut them of sentiment, apart from the emotions that are genuine, not manipulative.
Returning to the (mostly) kid’s POV of Nobody Knows, after the sprawling multi-generational ambitions of Still Walking, Koreeda hunkers down with Koichi (Koki Meada), who lives with his mom and her parents in Kagoshima, which—in a metaphor that, fitting with the rest of the film, never feels too precious—regularly gets coated in the ash of nearby volcano Sakuraiima. He longs to be rejoined with his younger brother Ryonuosuke (Oshiro Maeda), who has been jettisoned to Osaka with his layabout musician dad. Koichi is the more serious, melancholy of the two, Ryonuosuke the more carefree, always sporting a toothy, inviting grin. But Koichi is only child-serious: His plan to get his way through magic is only marginally more foolish than the concept of reuniting parents who, it becomes instantly clear, should never reunite.
Koreeda doesn’t push this nagging factoid but rather suggests it, as one would gently nudge another. The premise and score aside, this is aggressively non-aggressive filmmaking, more contemplative than insistent. Even a sequence that conveys one character’s change of heart via a montage of random moments (shades of American Beauty) is instead a thing of clear serenity. As usual, Koreeda’s latest is an accumulation of scenes rather than a tight script, some tossed-off, some quasi-improvisatory. And also as usual, in its portrayal of all ages, from child to grandparent, as representing different kinds of never completely-formed juvenilia, it’s also almost always sage.