Forgiven Children (Japan, 2020) [Nippon Connection ONLINE]

How much should a child be responsible for his or her crimes? Is mob justice an acceptable substitute for an inept justice system? Can there be redemption for murder? There are no easy answers in Eisuke Naito’s dark and morally provoking drama, Forgiven Children. Based on a true story (or stories), Forgiven Children offers a compelling and eye-opening view into the harrowing world of teenage crime and psychology in modern Japanese society.

While messing around with a hand-made crossbow, Kira (Yu Uemura) shoots one of his friends, Itsuki (Takuya Abe) in the neck, ending his life. Kira decides to lie to the court about the incident, and since there’s not enough evidence to convict him, the Juvenile court finds Kira innocent and sets him free. While Kira is out of trouble with the legal system, his suffering is far from over. Public opinion has already decided against Kira, making him and his family a target of constant bullying and harassment. Soon, their life turns into a perpetual struggle to stay ahead of the internet mob that is always out to get them. Weighed heavily by a guilty conscience and his family’s struggles, Kira sees no other option but to confess his crimes, even if he’s eluded punishment.

Naito has carved a niche for himself by making films about ordinary teenagers in extraordinary situations, often based on manga or light (young adult) novels. In some respects, Forgive Children is no exception. The film treads on similar ground as many of the director’s previous works like Puzzle (2014) or Liverleaf (2018), dealing with themes of bullying, teenage violence, and coming of age. Forgiven Children, however, stands apart from the rest by offering a far more grounded treatment of the same subject matters. Unlike Liverleaf, for example, which starts as a quiet teenage drama that descents into hyper-violence half-way through, Forgiven Children takes on the bearings of a more conventional drama. The conflict of the story lies not so much on the murder (and by extension the violence, which occupies very little space in the film), but on Kira’s increasing guilt and family troubles that follow his murder trial. By revealing the truth of the murder right away, the filmmakers enable the far more interesting family drama to come to the forefront of the plot and slowly simmer until Kira’s breaking point (at which point he confesses the crime).

Without a doubt, one of the film’s greatest assets is its highly compelling characters, realized in part by the great writing as well as the great performances brought on by the talented cast. Kira is an especially memorable and fascinating character. In him, writer/director Naito has created an deliciously complex personality who’s moral fabric is impossible to pin down. He is both the bully and the bullied, and though he eventually succumbs to guilt, it never reduces him to a single focus. Uemura’s ever-stoic, almost deadpan, facial expression bestows an additional layer of moral ambiguity upon the film, making his few moments of rage much more impactful. Yoshi Kuroiwa, playing Kira’s mother, also gives a wonderful performance as the ever-faithful mother. While her role is a bit more conventional in context of Asian cinema (Bong Joon-ho’s Mother comes to mind), Kuroiwa manages to give her character a unique flavour of motherhood that contextualizes Kira’s actions, both past and present.

Another element that sets Naito’s film apart is its complex portrayal of mob justice in the face of uncertain (from their point of view) guilt. The audience knows the truth, but the public in the movie does not. The public’s relentlessly cruel attitude towards Kira adds – despite his obvious guilt – a sympathetic streak to his character. It’s quite frightening to see Kira’s family unable to maintain a semblance of privacy or anonymity as they’re constantly bullied (and attacked) by the internet mob, a very real concern in today’s world.

Forgiven Children is a film that sticks with you long after it’s over. Though not a fresh topic by any means, Naito tackles many of the same issues from a dynamic and fresh perspective, resulting in a highly entertaining drama which is easily one of the best Japanese films of the year so far.

Forgiven Children is showing at Nippon Connection ONLINE from June 9-14.