Realist, meditative and haunting – these are the three major themes that seem to follow director Hirokazu Koreeda’s works. A master at the art of what has come to be known as “painful family dramas”, Koreeda’s first foray into this genre was the 2004 classic Nobody Knows (Daremo Shiranai). A film that harkens back to Mikio Naruse’s powerful melodramas, it would be the first of many films showcasing certain defining aesthetics that would come to be known as Koreeda’s signatures.
Loosely based on the Sugamo Child Abandonment Case, the story is about the abandonment of four children in a Sugamo city apartment. Juxtaposing the loneliness of being in a big city with the perspective of a young child, the movie takes what should be a terrifyingly abnormal situation – being abandoned by one’s parents to fend not just for yourself but also three very young siblings – seem almost normal.
Building this bizarre sense of normality are moments of exactingly used ma, as Miyazaki once called scenes of “emptiness”. Contrary to what the word might imply, these scenes of little ‘meaningless’ moments of the characters’ lives allows the audience to slowly sink into the feelings that flow through the film. We aren’t just force fed emotions, they grow on us as we watch the characters live out their day to day, each scene of nothingness feeding into the subtle undercurrent of dread. It is the use of these filler moments that blend the bizarre with the everyday, resulting in an ambiance that allows for even the very climax of the film to feel unexceptional.
And yet the real lesson of the film may perhaps be that the events of the film should not feel ordinary, but are perceived to be as such due to the loneliness that is symbolic of big city living. Instead of explicit exposition, Koreeda chooses a combination of ma scenes as well as cinematography showcasing the children ambling alone through the streets of Tokyo to create a sense of alienation and solitude.
Ultimately, the movie is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, and should be on everyone’s must-watch lists for masterpieces of cinema both Japanese-made and Japanese-aesthetic.