The Sugamo child abandonment case happened in Tokyo in the late 1980s. A woman had had five children, not registering their births and not sending them to school. All had different fathers. Then, one day in autumn 1987, the mother found a new boyfriend and disappeared, leaving her children alone in the apartment with the equivalent of 350 dollars.
Child A (the oldest) she left in charge of the others. Child C had died soon after birth, but his body was still in the apartment. Child E (the youngest) was killed by friends of Child A. Sugamo officials only broke into the apartment in July 1988, about nine months after the mother had disappeared, by which point the three surviving children were suffering from malnutrition.
Hirokazu Koreeda's film isn't based on that story, but it's inspired by it.
Firstly, it's far less grim. It's hardly a jolly film, but it's elegant and classically Japanese in the way it elides the big moments. Ozu and Mizoguchi would have been proud. Just as importantly, it's not pretending to represent what really happened. Koreeda changes all kinds of stuff (although the mother's backstory is pretty close) and he's regarding the original events as more of a launchpad for his imagination than anything else. It's gentle. It has moments of charm, although only very occasionally did I find it funny. It also goes on for flipping ages and you're likely to have one of two reactions: (a) poetic with a good ending, but it could have comfortably trimmed an hour from the running time, or (b) beautiful, painful and heartbreaking. Many people have found it spoke to them very strongly indeed. I can understand that completely. It's a powerful scenario and Koreeda takes us right inside it, without sentimentality, for close to two and a half hours.
The way he made the film is significant. Koreeda spent fifteen years working on the screenplay, then practically threw it away when he was shooting the children (i.e. all the time). Filming took over a year and was done chronologically, with the children being encouraged to be themselves with as few instructions as possible. What's more, they rented the apartment that the children are seen living in and the filming assistants really lived in it.
The children's performances are thus remarkable. Yuya Yagira in particular goes through a transformation that would be masterful from an adult and it won him a Best Actor Award at Cannes. (He's the first Japanese actor of any age to win this category at Cannes and he's still acting today.) The children's scenes are slow, but completely believable. I particularly liked the way Koreeda captures what it's like for them to be allowed outside. (Their mother smuggles them into their new apartment in suitcases and orders them never to go outside where people might see them.) I was struck by Momoko Shimizu walking along a street and simply naming everything she saw, as if it were noteworthy to see a greengrocer's shop and carrots.
The adult actors get much less screen time, but they're not negligible. Susumu Terajima gets a near-cameo, for instance. Most important though of course is You, the lovely lady from Still Walking, Kitaro and The Uchoten Hotel, who talks like a duck. I'm not joking. She practically quacks. She even had a career as a singer, which you'd think was the Japanese equivalent of care in the community. However she's also extraordinary as this mother, rightly being nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Japanese Academy Awards. (Tomoko called it "a perfect You role.") She's adorable with the children, effectively playing another child herself. She's an irresponsible gadfly with only a loose connection to reality, but she makes the character likable. Even when she abandons the children, you have sympathy. You understand her. This is a nearly impossible feat, since by rights you should be baying for her blood and leading a mob with burning torches.
I suspect You is more likeable than the real children's mother. By a lot. However this would only be a problem if the film were pretending to be a representation of reality, or if it were trying to flatten a complex emotional situation into Hollywood terms.
The film finds odd ways of being scary. Yagira's friends, for instance, unnerved me and it's nothing to do with physical threat. There's no murder in this film. All they do is shoplifting. Another crucial thing is plausibility. The fact that it's inspired by real events is irrelevant. If you can't convince an audience that these events could happen, then the film will crash and burn. Fortunately this succeeds too. I was surprised that the landlord didn't throw them out in the street, but... well, they didn't in real life either. However Koreeda makes it frighteningly easy to see how four children could survive and fall through the cracks thanks to people looking the other way or being charitable. No electricity? Well, it's summer. No running water? They'll live. No hospital insurance? Well, to the children, that's another world. He also makes it clear why they didn't turn themselves in to the police or the social services.
It's a remarkable film, although not an exciting one. I'm a heartless bastard and I found it crawlingly slow, but also eventually kind of hypnotic. It's impressive. It's just that it's really long. However it's also a detailed, serene look at something terrible with aspects you're unlikely to have considered, such as the effect on children of not being allowed to go to school. It's not a feel-good movie, but you'll be glad to know it's also not a wrist-opener. This is a famous film, by the way, and it was in competition for the Cannes Palme d'Or. It won't be for most people, but if it's for you, you'll know it.