leave a comment --Ken Fox
Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda's most accessible film to date is also his most wrenching, a beautiful but ultimately tragic drama about four young children left to fend for themselves after their flaky, irresponsible mother disappears. On the morning they move into their new Tokyo apartment, young Keiko Fukushima (You) introduces herself and her 12-year-old son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), to their new landlords. She tells them her husband is working abroad and that Akira is entering the sixth grade, all of which is a lie. Not only is Keiko not married, but she has three other children she plans to keep hidden in the apartment. Tiny Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) and Akira's younger brother, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), are packed into suitcases and smuggled in with the rest of the luggage; Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), who's only slightly younger than Akira, sneaks in that night. Cheerful and childlike Keiko warns them that, aside from Akira, none of them can ever leave the apartment or make any noise; if the landlord discovers them, they'll all be evicted. Kyoko's pleas to attend school are met with bewilderment; in Keiko's opinion, school is a waste of time and, besides, kids without daddies only get bullied. Days when mom is at work, Akira does the grocery shopping at a local market. Nights when Keiko's not out dining out with her potential new husband whom Keiko conveniently neglects to tell about her children she returns home to a meal cooked by Akira and Kyoko. It's a lot for a kid to handle, but full responsibility for his brothers and sisters is thrust upon Akira when Keiko packs a bag, hands him some money and takes off something she's done before with the promise that she'll return before Christmas. She never does. Akira is afraid that if he turns to the police for help the siblings will be separated, but as bills, disconnection notices and garbage pile up, basic survival becomes increasingly difficult. While Kore-eda's film bears striking similarities to Isao Takahata's animated masterpiece GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988), in which a teenage boy and his little sister are left to fend for themselves during the final months of WWII, Hirokazu's vision of modern Tokyo is undeniably contemporary. With the exception of an alienated schoolgirl (Hanae Kan) who befriends the children, no one seems to know or care what's happening inside the Fukushima's apartment. Sadly, as the brief prologue indicates, this fictionalized story is based on a real-life incident.