The Japanese have a great capacity for tragedy and sadness in their film
subjects. The work of the great director Kurosawa is full of it in the most
intense and profound ways. Japan was the only country in which "Johnny Got
His Gun" produced lines around the block when it opened there. This true
story about a case of family abandonment, which comes from 1988 newspaper
headlines, fits the cultural inclination to be moved by emotional devastation
with a real-life social tragedy in modern Japanese society.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda bases his study of four siblings who survive
without parents or legal identities on an event that came to be known as "The
Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo." When we first meet
this brood as they move into their new apartment, Keiko (You) hovers over
her offspring like any mother would. At their first meal in their new home,
she lays down the law that they are never to be seen together or out on the
veranda for fear the landlord will discover younger children in the apartment
than are permitted.
The kids, all of whom have different fathers, understand and dutifully abide
by their mother's requirements. This also means they can't attend school,
much as 12-year old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and 11-year old Shigeru (Hiei Kimua)
want to. Even sweet little 7-year old tot Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) misses
companionship of her peers.
One day, without warning, Mom leaves a few thousand Yen and a note for elder
son Akira (Yuya Yagira) saying that's she going to be gone for awhile. At
14, he's the true caretaker of the family and has already been doing the
grocery shopping and cooking. When Keiko returns, she's quite matter-of-fact
about being involved with a man who doesn't know of her kids and that her
longing for happiness overrides disclosure of a family. For this lady, a
sense of parental responsibility is no competition at all against her
adult satisfactions and needs.
Taking Akira's maturity and dependability as a license to pursue her separate
life without losing any sleep about how the kid's will fare without her, she
leaves enough money for a month or so and disappears. After that, save for the
occasional financial contribution, her abandonment is complete. Her promises
to revisit for Christmas and New Year come and, heartlessly, go.
The kids' condition is, at first, fine. They eat well and keep themselves
amused in the apartment, at the TV, coloring with crayons, whatever enclosed
children do with non-stop playtime. But, as cleanliness deteriorates and
adequate nourishment becomes scarce, unpaid bills cause services to be cut
off and "rules" to bend. Akira goes so far as to look up his Dad, a brief
visit that ends with the grand contribution to his son's well-being of his
pocket money. Soon, the kids are bathing at their only water supply: a
fountain in the public park. Which is where they meet Saki (Kan Hanae), a
lonely girl of Akira's age, who attempts to help out.
Kore-eda's film is documentary-like in its steadfast hold on reality. He
spares nothing in meticulously detailing the life imposed upon these innocent
children by the cruelty of a sociopathically uncaring parent. But, while the
harsh consequences are unmerciful, it is the stamp of stark truth that makes
it compelling -- like a sentimentalized version wouldn't. Childrens'
longing for a mother who has rejected them tells it all.
Which, of course, is no excuse for the film's 2 hour and 21 minute length when
such length dissipates impact. Still, one has to admire the conviction
Kore-ida brings to his account of single women having kids in private and
then denying them the legality and rights as citizens, including schooling.
His cinematic artistry is also finely expressed in the care and taste he took
in casting. These extraordinary young actors show an instinct for the art as
they breathe life into the unique nature of their roles. Kore-ida
individually and sympathetically explores each of them, making the last act
all the more emotionally crippling. Yuya Yagira as the center of the drama
is outstanding. Momoko Shimizu has enough plucky charm to stop a battle
The film doesn't tell what became of the real-life characters on which the
story is based. My guess is that it's because nobody knows.
~~ Jules Brenner