Koichi (Koki Maeda), a boy of 12 with chipmunk cheeks, lives with his mother and grandparents in a cramped apartment in the town of Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, in southwest Japan. It’s an unremarkable, pedestrian-looking town, or would be if Sakurajima, an active volcano, didn’t steadily dust everything in a blizzard of ash. No one seems terribly bothered by the ash or wears the familiar white surgical masks. Few seem even to notice the volcano, other than Koichi, who reasonably wonders why everyone is so calm. He’s less afraid than puzzled and, as he walks to school, he also questions why the building was built on a hill. "I don’t get it," he says, and not for the first time.
Koichi’s disarming intimacy and Kore-eda’s elliptical storytelling can make it easy to go with the loose narrative flow and skim over even curious details like the volcano. While another director might use the belching crater for its metaphoric resonance, as a symbol, say, of churning emotions, the volcano is of real existential concern for Koichi. He’s a little kid; it’s a big volcano — and an even bigger and more uncertain world. Outwardly Koichi seems so mature, as when he sweeps ash out of his room. But having been separated from his giggly, happy younger brother, Ryunosuke (played by Koki Maeda’s own scene-stealing brother, Ohshiro), who lives in another town with their father, Kenji (Joe Odagiri), Koichi is very much the questioning, learning child.
This is a film, in other words, about growing up. And, like life or at least like life as seen through Kore-eda’s lens, it involves numerous detours, not always with apparent purpose. While Koichi and soon Ryunosuke become the story’s dual cornerstones, with the story toggling back and forth between them, their classmates, parents and assorted others also drift in and out of the picture. At times Kore-eda appears to be losing his focus, as when he lingers over two old men meandering down a street. (There are moments when his winding here and there feels as if he’s doing as much searching as Koichi.) But these characters and their experiences are also pieces in Koichi and Ryunosuke’s fragmented lives.
The nominal story involves Koichi’s belief — he heard it, so it must be right — that wishes come true for those who stand in a certain spot in front of two passing trains. Marshaling some friends and coordinating with Ryunosuke, he heads off to wish for his family to be reunited, a grand adventure that is more persuasive in its emotional reverberations than in its practical details. That scarcely matters and soon becomes beside the point of Kore-eda’s gift for carefully excavating deep emotions that his characters cannot express or may not be conscious of. I Wish tends toward the vaporous and not just because of its volcano; but whenever its children are on screen, lighted up with joy or dimmed by hard adult truths, the film burns bright.