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‘Homesick’

The end of childhood comes with a joyous bang

by Mark Schilling

I once had a promising career as a teacher at a city day-care center in Hollywood (yes, that Hollywood). For one thing, I enjoyed interacting (translation: playing) with my charges, mostly African-American kids aged 9 to 12. For another, I liked making stuff with and for them, including a multi-story dollhouse — the product of weeks of break-time labor and scrounging in woodpiles and hardware stores — that was later exhibited at the Los Angeles Board of Education. But late one afternoon, desultorily kicking a ball around with the last boy left, I had an epiphany: I didn’t want to be doing this when I was 30. Not long after, I left LA for Japan and the start of what I hoped would be a more adult existence. Good luck with that.

So Satoru Hirohara’s film about a jobless 30-year-old man who becomes the summer playmate of three neighborhood boys rang some bells. Made with the production and distribution support of the Pia Film Festival organization, “Homesick” has the setup of a feel-good, up-with-kids movie, but Hirohara, not yet 30 himself, gives his unemployed hero, Kenji (Tomohiro Kaku), no easy outs. Being in tune with your inner child can be a blessing, the film says, but Kenji’s Peter Pan existence begins to feel more like a curse.

As the film begins, he is living alone in the family home, which will soon be demolished for a development project. Mom long ago flew the coop, Dad is happily running a B&B out in the boonies and Sis is traveling the world, while regularly sending Kenji letters about her wonderful, life-changing adventures. Then one day, through no fault of his own, his job as a house painter goes poof. Rather than hustle up a new residence, employer and life, Kenji kills time and sleeps late in what can generously be described as a pigsty.

Smelling an opportunity for mischief, three neighborhood boys ring his doorbell, decorate his brick wall with graffiti and douse his window with water guns until Kenji, tired of being bored, douses them back. In the exhilarating romp that follows, with the squirting and splashing captured up-close and wet by a hand-held camera, Kenji becomes the boys’ new playmate. Nicknamed “Suimashin” (“Water Devil”) for a character in a card game, he suddenly finds his empty days occupied by hijinks with his new pals, culminating in their joint building of a giant dinosaur out of cardboard boxes in his backyard. What fun!

As played by Kaku, who has been acting in films and on TV since his early teens, Kenji deals with the boys as equals, minus the “special” voice so many adults use with kids out of habit or condescension. He also allows them liberties, such as tromping through the house in their muddy shoes, that their mothers, teachers and other responsible adults in their lives would not tolerate. That is, he is more like a gaki taisho (boss of the neighborhood kids) than any sort of authority figure.

Kenji’s knack for being one of boys has its downside, though, as he becomes uncomfortably aware when he encounters Nozomi (Erika Okuda), a former classmate now working for the real-estate company that wants to evict him. Smart, attractive and thoroughly grown-up, she smilingly regards him as something of a lost cause. This injures his masculine pride, but doesn’t prevent him from lolling in bed until noon — or taking the loneliest of his three small friends, Korosuke (Yuki Kaneda), under his wing.

Hirohara, who also wrote the script, strains out the sentimentality that the usual commercial filmmaker would ladle on, while tossing in welcome dashes of madcap energy and puckish humor. The over-arching mood, however, is one of melancholy — and not only because Kenji is confronting childhood’s overdue end. He is also the film’s representative of a generation struggling to attain adulthood in an economy that has permanently marginalized many of them.

At the same time, the film does not regard his plight as a social injustice or a personal tragedy. Kenji’s fate, it implies, is finally up to Kenji. He may yet prove Nozomi and the rest of the doubting world wrong, the operative word being “may.”

In telling this story, Hirohara makes his points with poignant images as well as words. One is a shadowy medium close-up of Kenji’s hands and forearms highlighting their network of prominent, manly veins. Time, it seems to say, makes its mark on everyone, however oblivious they may be to its passing.

Another is a long shot of kids playing soccer in an open field, lost in the excitement and bliss of childhood’s eternal present. Grown-ups can visit that world, but as even the Kenjis learn sooner or later, they can never go back.

Fun fact: Satoru Hirohara’s 2009 student graduation film, “Sekai Good Morning!! (Good Morning to the World!!),” was screened in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival, as well as at others in Japan and abroad.