In our anything-goes age, pedophilia remains one subject that makes everyone from film industry executives to ordinary fans nervous, to put it mildly. In “Lolita,” Stanley Kubrick made the title character older than the 12-year-old in Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious novel, while suggesting the sex rather than showing it, but the film was still at the outer limits of what was permissible in 1962. In his 1997 version, Adrian Lyne tried to be more faithful to the novel, and his film was turned down for distribution by every Hollywood studio before finally going into limited release in the U.S.

Junji Sakamoto’s “Yami no Kodomotachi (Children of the Dark),” based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, is a far rawer depiction of pedophilia and its victims than anything in the “Lolita” films, but not in a pornographic sense. Instead, Salkamoto shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable. Despite its thriller plot structure, the film is a serious indictment, based on actual cases. There is not a “Lolita”-ish leer in it.

“Yami no Kodomotachi,” however, has not been given a warm welcome on the festival circuit, though Sakamoto has made several critically acclaimed films, from his 1989 feature debut “Dotsuitarunen” through his 2000 loner-on-the-run drama “Kao (Face),” which won the prestigious Kinema Junpo prize for best Japanese film of the year. Also, “Yami” is getting only a limited release in Japan, though it features two of the hottest young stars of the moment: Aoi Miyazaki and Satoshi Tsumabuki, as well as such well-known veterans as Yosuke Eguchi and Koichi Sato.

Yami no Kodomotachi
Director Junji Sakamoto
Run Time 138 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (Aug. 1, 2008)

I can’t vouch for the reasoning of the festival programmers or theater owners who rejected the film, but in being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult “clients” in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”

Still, it’s possible to question Sakamoto’s judgment while admiring much of the film, which is an unsparing expose of a social issue that involves Japan, but most in the Japanese TV and film world would not touch with a barge pole. Miyazaki, Tsumabuchi and other big names deserve credit for appearing in “Yami no Kodomotachi” — and raising its profile by their presence. Its central character is Nambu (Eguchi), a newspaper reporter stationed in Bangkok, who is researching the illegal harvesting of children’s organs in Thailand for the transplant operations of Japanese patients. A shady source tells Nambu that the Thai children are not victims of diseases or accidents, but are rather still healthy when they are killed for their body parts.

Meanwhile, a young Japanese woman, Keiko Otowa (Miyazaki), comes to Bangkok to work at a social-welfare center for children. The center’s earnest female director, Napapom (Prima Ratchata), takes Keiko on a tour of a nearby slum, where she sees, for the first time, the living conditions of the children of the poorest classes. Soon after, she meets Nambu, who has come to the center for information on organ harvesting.

Then a girl at the center, Aranya (Setanan Homyamyen), is kidnapped by a child-prostitution ring and taken to a brothel in Chennai that caters to Western pedophiles. Children who refuse to satisfy their client’s desires or obey the commands of the brothel staff are beaten mercilessly. The ones who contract AIDS are tossed out for dead in the trash.

A letter arrives at the center, written on tissue paper, from Aranya. Napapom, Keiko and other members of the center staff rush to Chennai.

Other plot threads include Nambu’s rescue of a young Japanese photographer (Satoshi Tsumabuki) from a Thai jail and Keiko and Nambu’s confrontation with the father (Koichi Sato) and mother of a child scheduled for a Thai transplant, but the dramatic focus stays where it belongs — on the children in the brothel, a dirty, airless antechamber to hell. Sakamoto gives us its horrors straight, if somewhat simplistically. His most sharply defined character among the staff is a brothel scout, a former child prostitute himself, who has a certain sympathy for his charges, which somehow makes his selling of them worse.

“Yami no Kodomotachi” ends with a twist that undercuts everything we thought we knew about a major character — and comes across as a forced attempt to hype a story that has been as emotionally uncalculated and up-front in its reforming zeal as a Dickens novel. It is one false note in Sakamoto’s strongest, bravest and most debate-worthy film in years.

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