This is sort of like Home Alone, as re-written by Ingmar Bergman. Or maybe Lord of the Flies, except it takes place in a nice little suburb of Tokyo, and nobody notices the children’s descent into primitive life. Or how about “Kid Nation,” a show which is currently stirring up controversy before it’s even been shown (and which I will never see)? It is said to be based on a real event, though it’s been fictionalized. The story: A childlike, hedonistic, narcissistic woman has four children by four different fathers. She leaves them alone for a few days, then a few weeks, then many months, to fend for themselves. The landlord only knows about the oldest boy; they sneaked the other kids into the apartment in suitcases, because children aren’t wanted in the building. So they have to stay inside, never go out. The mother sends them a little money now and then. At first they do okay, physically, though it’s taking an emotional toll on Akira, the 12-year-old who has to manage this little family, including Kyoko, 10ish, and two young’uns. He knows his mom is a fuckup, but he can’t go to the police because they’ll split up the family, like they did once before. Family is everything to him, and he does his level best … but it’s too much for a 12-year-old. The horrible thing is, nobody notices. It seems incredible, but it happened. Whether the worst thing that happens in the film happened in real life I don’t know, but it’s more than possible.
The film is slow and claustrophobic, intentionally, because that is their life, one of boredom and no place to go and, when the money runs out, hunger. The electricity is turned off. They wash their clothes in the public park. At 140 minutes, I thought it was at least 20 minutes too long, but—full disclosure—I had a headache while watching it, so I wasn’t in the best possible mood for something like that. Possibly I would have liked it better at another time, and I do recognize that it was well-made, and incredibly well acted by the boy, who won Best Actor at Cannes.
But I began to long for an emotional payoff of some sort, such as Ralph running into the ship’s captain on the beach as he’s about to be killed by Jack’s pig-hunters. You know there was such a moment, when the authorities became aware of the situation, but we are not shown that moment. Of course it is deliberate, but I really wanted to see it. Most of all, I wanted to see the mother disgraced, brought to justice. What she did to those children was child abuse, as certainly as if she had beaten them with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire … which is what I wanted to do to her. The irony is that, mostly likely, they would have preferred the baseball bat, and Akira probably would have stood up for her. What a sad world this can be. [If Varley hadn’t had a headache, he would have been thinking that the director was channeling Akira Kurosawa.]