Some children can dream big. For some, it’s enough to survive the seemingly endless mistakes of their parents.
Such thoughts must be uppermost in the mind of young Rikutaro as he watches red-hot iron being smelted in a furnace in his hometown of Kawaguchi. Images of transformation through fire are frequent in Kōki Fukuyama’s semi-autobiographical Children of Iron, and they’re not an exaggeration. The parents in this film aren’t monsters, but the home they’ve tried to create is a minefield. Thankfully, the kids seem wise enough to survive it, though you wish they didn’t have to be.
The story begins with young Mariko and Rikutaro (Mau and Taishi Sato) being thrown together through the marriage of Mariko’s charming but shiftless father Kon (Jyonmyon Pe) and Rikutaro’s bar hostess mother Yayoi (Tomoko Tabata). Mariko moves in to Rikutaro’s room, and the two immediately have a battle of wills (and rock-paper-scissors) over who gets the top bunk. Bullied at school for being “fake” siblings, they soon make a “divorce pact,” resolving to do everything they can to drive their parents apart. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned.
Fukuyama’s film was partly inspired by his own childhood. His mother was briefly married to a man with a daughter named Mariko, and when the adults split up Fukuyama’s stepsister was completely removed from his life. Mariko got in touch with Fukuyama more than thirty years later, after both had married and had children of their own, saying she’d been dreaming about their time together. Together, the former siblings sketched out their memories, which were then fleshed out by a scriptwriter.
Seen through the children’s eyes, their parents’ motivations are sometimes mysterious. As played by Pe, Mariko’s father Kon is the more enigmatic one. We can see how Yayoi might have been attracted to his sweetness and goofy smile, but his transformation to drunken brute in the second half of the film feels sudden. We get to know Yayoi a bit better and can imagine how life might have brought her to this point–widowed, supporting a son, scraping by, hoping for the possibility of something better. Maybe not the wisest choice to marry a man like Kon, but not a completely unreasonable one.
The kids are the real stars, though. As Mariko, Mau is sullen and forceful, a sharp contrast to her father’s ready smile and joking nature. She loves him, but we can tell that she also sees right through him. Rikutaro initially seems to be a pushover but soon reveals hidden strength. The children grow close while remaining wary, and nothing ever emerges from their mouths that feels fake or forced. The moment when Mariko’s resolve finally breaks and she asks someone for forgiveness is truly heartbreaking.
It’s easy to be angry at the parents, especially when their children are doing such a much better job at being good people. But Children of Iron is careful not to vilify Yayoi and Kon completely. They’re mostly just weak–and in the case of Yayoi, offered very few options for survival. It’s also a welcome change to see more and more Japanese films depicting non-traditional families (Mipo Oh’s Being Good and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Our Little Sister being two other recent examples).
At one point in the film Mariko takes Rikutaro to one of her favorite spots–a simple concrete tunnel that she claims has the ability to transport anyone to an alternate universe. The children run back and forth through the tunnel, imagining themselves in “No Homework Land” and “We Can Fly Land.” It’s one of the few moments in the film when they both allow themselves to truly be children, even if they know it can’t last. The world of their parents is waiting nearby, and to survive it they’re going to have to grow up very quickly.
Children of Iron opens Feb. 13 at Kadokawa Cinemas Shinjuku. Official website: http://www.tetsunoko.jp/index.html