Two summers ago my son, then 26, shot a documentary about homeless people living on the banks of the Tama River. From hearing his stories and watching the finished product, I learned (or rather had confirmed) that local movie stereotypes of the homeless as lovable eccentrics or pathetic losers didn’t fit the complex reality.
His subjects were a surprisingly enterprising bunch who built snug (if hardly typhoon-proof) shelters out of wood scraps and plastic tarps and supplied themselves with many of the comforts of ordinary living, from lighting to cooking utensils. They survived by collecting empty cans for recyclers, gardening and even fishing. Some liked to party, while others were defiant loners. It was hard to imagine any of them as salarymen, though some balked at the “homeless” label. They had, they insisted, trades, pasts and identities that belied their current circumstances.
By these measures and others, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s “My House,” a low-budget black-and-white film about homeless folks in his native Nagoya, is true to life indeed. While directing commercial blockbusters, including the “20-seiki Shonen (20th Century Boys)” trilogy, Tsutsumi has long had an interest in the homeless, beginning with his 1991 film of that title (“Homuresu” in Japanese) starring Yoko Ono. Also, his new film is based on the nonfiction of architect Kyohei Sakaguchi, a student of “homeless architecture.”
The opening sequence shows the hero, the frizzy-haired, gently determined Suzumoto (folk singer Takao Ito), and his spunky, ever-smiling partner Sumi-chan (Eri Ishida) building the titular house (that is, tarp-covered shelter) in a Nagoya park, with practiced efficiency and speed. They are soon joined by two pals (who are lovably eccentric, but not annoyingly so) and a reasonably harmonious little community is formed. Suzumoto and Sumi even have a flat-panel TV they run off old car batteries. All they seem to lack is a wireless Internet hookup.
Meanwhile, a blank-faced junior high school boy, Shota (Sada Murata), is diligently grinding through math classes in preparation for a brilliant future, fueled by the endless cans of Pepsi he extracts from a small fridge in his room. His family is well off, but his mother (Tae Kimura) is a germaphobe who cleans the house obsessively and can barely stand the presence of other humans, while his father is a gruff, distant presence and his sister is a small mass of silent rage.
These stories run on parallel tracks — until Suzumoto starts collecting empty cans at Shota’s place and Shota starts to take an interest in Sumi’s off-key singing at the park encampment. But what he thinks of this woman, who exemplifies everything his parents and society have taught him to dread and despise (poverty! Dirt! Freedom!) is hard to say.
Unlike Tsutsumi’s commercial work, which tends to the busy, loud and manga-esque, “My House” prefers to quietly suggest rather than nosily explain, but its message is clear enough: The truly pitiable ones in this society are not the hard-working Suzumotos but the Shotas, relentlessly harried to achieve goals that, with their workaholic/neurotic parents as examples, look empty, even insane.
This is hardly new — Japanese films have been dissecting the sicknesses of the educational system here for decades, but Tsutsumi’s treatment of it is also subtle and multilayered to the point of opacity, which makes his climax all the more shocking.
At the same time, his view of his homeless characters is sympathetically clear-eyed. Suzumoto is, like so many in his situation, not temporarily down on his luck. Instead he has been living the homeless life so long that he can no longer imagine — or possibly cope — with anything else.
When an understanding love-hotel owner (Itsuji Itao) offers him a steady job, he fumbles for words. It’s been so long, it seems, since anyone regarded him as employable that he can’t comprehend the owner’s offer. He’s like a man in a wheelchair being offered a chance to compete in the high jump.
The decision to film in black and white was inspired, since the lack of color — and Tsutsumi’s crisply atmospheric photography — helps raise the story beyond the mundane to the realm of myth, while underlining the shadowy nature of the characters’ homeless existences: largely invisible to the majority, but occasionally nightmarish. Forced to choose, though, I’d take Suzumoto’s station in life over Shota’s — despite the cardboard insulation.