IFC/Color/1.66/Dolby Digital/141 Mins./Not Yet Rated

Cast: Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You.
Credits: Written, produced, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Executive producer: Yutaka Shigenobu. Director of photography: Yutaka Yamazaki. Production designers: Toshihiro Isomi, Keiko Mitsumatsu. Sound: Yutaka Tsurumaki. Music by Gontiti. A TV Man Union production, in association with Bandai Visual Co., Engine Film, c-style and Cine Qua Non. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Keiko (played by an actress with the tantalizing name of You) is youthful, trim, energetic, pretty and as flaky as falling snow. She has four children by four different fathers, and she totes them around Tokyo like dirty laundry. Moving into a new apartment, she literally packs the three smaller siblings into suitcases while she cons her new landlords into letting her and her eldest, handsome 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira), rent the place. The other children, later smuggled into the building, are ordered to stay inside the apartment at all times.

The youngsters consist of two boys and two girls—in addition to the precocious Akira there are obnoxiously stubborn Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), solemn Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and irresistibly charming Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). They obey Akira but are also jealous of him because he is allowed to leave the apartment. The others live with little exercise and minimal sunlight, imprisoned in a few drab rooms. No sooner are the children accommodated to their furtive routines than Keiko, always restless, leaves the household to pursue a new boyfriend. Much to Akira’s disgust, she “has fallen in love again.” Keiko gives him living expenses, places him in charge of his siblings, and disappears.

Writer-director-producer-editor Hirokazu Kore-eda’s approach to this urban tragedy, based on an actual event, is far more lyrical than documentary. The children prepare their own meals, watch television and play with toys. Life seems almost pedestrian and the harmony in the parentless household seems exemplary. Every season is lovingly captured by DP Yutaka Yamazaki. The loneliness and fear are muted but omnipresent. Akira, given too much responsibility, suffers constantly, but suppresses his anxiety with Spartan courage. The children do their best to cooperate under his guidance and at first worry only about their mother’s return and having enough money to survive. The two older children, Akira and his sister Kyoko, miss school and having friends. The world around them, including other people in the building, has no idea of their desperate suffering. And keeping it a secret is what Akira wants, because he knows if people discovered their situation, social services would separate the children.

At his loneliest point, penniless, Akira meets and befriends the sensitive Saki (Hanae Kan), a beautiful girl his own age who becomes fascinated by the parentless household. He is even drafted into a schoolyard baseball game and enjoys an ecstatic moment of happy acceptance, only to learn later that day that death has visited his family.

At 141 minutes, some filmgoers may find themselves suffering fanny fatigue. But those who can tolerate slower rhythms will appreciate Kore-eda’s patient approach. And all will admire his handling of the children, which is extremely accomplished, reminiscent of our American master of children-in-cinema, Steven Spielberg. This depressing tale is more than a cautionary reminder of the importance of staying close to our children, but speaks to the failure of urban society in general to respond to the more subtle tragedies taking place every day in a self-preoccupied society. Nobody knows because nobody cares to know.