Strained relationships between parents and children mark the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, a point reinforced early on in I Wish by a line as funny as it is depressing: "Anyone else who doesn't have a father, raise your hand." It's spoken by a teacher to a classroom full of young students, one of whom, Koichi (Koki Maeda), has just revealed that he and his brother, Ryu (Koki's actual brother, Ohshirô), have been split between their mother and father. No one in the room raises their hand and, almost immediately, we learn that the boy's despair isn't shared by his brother. During a sequence set to music best described as twangy, almost country-sounding, Ryu gallivants about town with friends while Koichi rides an empty bus home by himself. Their respective moods are deeply implicative. The former remembers all too well the trauma of listening to his incompatible parents argue over anything and everything; the latter simply wants the four of them to live under the same roof again. Hence the conflict, not to mention the title: A wish isn't really a wish if there's reason to suggest it shouldn't come true.
Trains between coastal cities play an even larger role in Hirokazu's latest than they did in his exceptional Still Walking. There's word of a bullet train that will soon link the brothers' towns, and Koichi is convinced that the moment the locomotives pass one another is ideal for wish-making. The tension between the seriousness of his problem and the naiveté with which he approaches it is a source of much drama in the film, but it's also part of why I Wish doesn't reach the heights it's capable of. Here, in turning his gaze almost exclusively to two children rather than dividing his attention more evenly between several generations of the same family as he has previously, Hirokazu is sometimes guided more by sentiment than intricate character dynamics. The music, for instance, comes across as part of a vague attempt to evoke a melancholy yet uplifting vibe, but more often than not it's distracting, even cloying. Far more effective is the film's backdrop of a recently erupted volcano coughing ash into the air above Kagoshima, a sign of things changing for the worse, but also, as one old man points out, "proof the mountain is still alive." Koichi is coming of age in a changing Japan, and his slow realization that such changes as those he's going through right now can lead to better things arrives with difficulty and resistance.
As Koichi and his friends' wishes get progressively more solemn (one who previously hoped to become a professional baseball player now wants his dog to come back to life, while another simply wants his father to quit gambling), we are to understand that their childhood concerns are being supplanted by those of the real world. "Do kids today even care about anything?" an old man asks at one point; Hirokazu and his cast of sensitive young souls answer in the affirmative. When finally the children get the chance to shout their wishes at the two passing trains, the effect is cathartic in a similar, though somehow opposite, way to the final scene of Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love—only there we didn't need to actually hear Tony Leung Chiu Wai in order to know what it was he most desired. Both buoyed and brought down by its focus on these two brothers, I Wish has a tough time balancing the heartfelt with the saccharine and too often feels slight. Considering Hirokazu's track record, this comes as a disappointment. He has the raw materials, not to mention chops as a writer-director, to bring this story to light, but struggles in making it more than the sum of its parts.