If this film does not start your heart beating in sympathy, then you can never become a heart donor because you dont have a heart.
Keiko (You) is the single mother of four children all with different fathers! They are just moving into a new apartment in Tokyo, where the landlord does not like noisy children. So to get the apartment Keiko claims, that she only has one child: 12 year old Akira (Yûya Yagira), which she introduces to the landlord, when they move in. The two small children Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) are smuggled into the apartment in suitcases. The slightly older Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) sneaks in later.
The younger children have to promise Keiko never to make loud noises, and to stay in the apartment at all times. Akira shops, cooks and generally looks after his younger siblings. Akira and Kyoko both wants to go to school, but are only allowed to study at home.
Keiko is trying to find a new man, so she is almost never home. She works during the day, and dates every night. Akira is left with the full responsibility for his sisters and brother. A heavy burden to put on a twelve year old. Keiko starts to stay away for longer periods, just leaving money, that Akira has to administrate to the best of his abilities. Her periods away from the apartment grows longer and longer, and finally she just stays away. Akira has to do everything, and the money stops coming.
He meets Saki (Hanae Kan), who is an outcast in her class in school, and is probably a year or so older than him. But she gets to like the other children and wants to help.
The children live alone in the apartment for months, without anybody doing anything about it.
This is the latest film by Japanese Director Kore-eda Hirokazu ("Maborosi" and "After Life"). As with his other films it is quite marvelous. The film is based on actual events happening in Tokyo in the eighties.
The children in the film have such a close bond, that they want to stay together at almost any cost. To give the young actors a similar feeling Kore-eda took them on picnics, made family photo albums for each and generally had them spend a lot of time together, so they started to feel like a family.
He succeeded to such a degree, that I didnt really feel, that the children were acting. It feels, like they really are a family. In Japanese culture children are brought up to respect their elders even if their elder in this case is just a 12 year old big brother. Western children would never have been as obedient, but it feels completely natural in a Japanese context. Yûya Yagira as Akira played his role so well, that he got the prize as best actor in Cannes this year even though he is only 14 years old in real life!
Kore-eda made me feel the love of these children, because he took the time to let me get to know them (the film lasts 140 minutes). No big stunts, no dramatic tantrums or fights just everyday living with desperation slowly closing in and putting the childrens love for each other to the test.
Beautiful photography (you wont beleive how close-ups of feet, ankles and arms can set a mood until youve seen it used here) is one of the trademarks of a Kore-eda film, and you wont be disappointed. The sober way he tells this story, should be taught in Hollywood.
Kore-eda and the children have made a marvelous film, that are nearly unbearable in the tragic circumstances of the children but extremely heartwarming in their love for each other. Go see it, if you get the chance.
SPECIAL NOTE: I saw the film at Copenhagen International Film Festival, but it should be out on DVD soon. Copenhagen International Film Festival is just in its second year, but showed about a 100 films in ten days and 10 of them very Asian ("Old Boy" was the closing film at the Award Ceremony), even though the festivals focus is European film. If they continue this trend, we will try and give you a report from next years festival.