The homeless in Japan are mostly older men down on their luck, sleeping on cardboard in train stations or under blue tarps in public parks. Some are mentally disturbed or chronically ill, but their image in popular culture is surprisingly positive — ranging from the lovable loser to the ragged sage.

Based on a best-selling memoir by comic Hiroshi Tamura, Tomoyuki Furumaya’s “Homeless Chugakusei” (“The Homeless Student”) shows another, less common face of homelessness. It’s hero is Hiroshi (Teppei Koike), a second-year student in an Osaka suburban junior high school who, just as summer vacation is about to start, comes home to find his family’s furniture piled outside the front door of their apartment. His feckless father (Issei Ogata) has gotten them evicted, but neither Hiroshi’s older brother, Kenichi (Akihiro Nishino), nor older sister, Yukiko (Chizuru Ikewaki), know his whereabouts. (Their beloved mother [Yuko Kotegawa] died when they were still children.)

Then Dad pedals up nonchalantly on his rattling bike, urges his three incredulous children to “stay strong” and, after calling this impromptu family meeting “dismissed” (kaisan) pedals away to who knows where. Instead of staying with his two siblings, Hiroshi tells them he will be all right and runs off with a few belongings and a handful of change. He spends that night sleeping in a nearby park, on a slide shaped and colored like a spiral pile of poo. He has just found his new home.

Homeless Chugakusei
Director Tomoyuki Furumaya
Run Time 118 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (Oct. 31, 2008)

This setup is reminiscent of “Dare mo Shiranai” (“Nobody Knows”), Hirokazu Kore’eda’s much praised 2004 drama about young children abandoned by their feather-brained mother, also based on a true story. But where Kore’eda was unsentimental if sympathetically observant about his children’s slow descent into chaos, starvation and death, Furumaya (“Mabudachi,” “Nanako”) has made a hankie-wringing, blatantly inspirational entertainment for the book’s millions of fans.

Also, where Kore’eda cast for authenticity and ability — his 14-year-old star Yuya Yagira won the Best Actor prize at Cannes — Furumaya had to settle for Teppei Koike, a member of the pop duo WaT, who is nearly a decade older than his character and looks it, no matter how wide he opens those baby-fawn eyes.

Compared to Akihiro Nishino and Chizuru Ikewaki, who play his siblings with welcome touches of grit and humor, Koike is an amiable cipher who gets dirtied up in the course of his on-screen trials but otherwise stays a nice, naive kid with street smarts about as finely honed as an abandoned kitten’s.

This may appeal to Koike’s fans, who don’t want to see his clean image sullied, as well as readers of Tamura’s book, whose hero survives on cardboard, weeds and food he buys with coins found under vending machines, rather than shoplift or resort to other morally dubious shifts. Even so, Koike’s Bambi with the body of a man is somehow off-putting.

Finally, where Kore’eda starkly underlined the isolation of being young and homeless in the big city, Furumaya quickly surrounds Hiroshi with curious, mostly good-hearted strangers, beginning with the neighborhood boys, who contest his “ownership” of the slide, but become his silent supporters, and continuing with the friendly adults who rally to his side after he reunites, in the film’s second act, with his brother and sister. In fact, Hiroshi’s suffering starts to seem self-willed and perverse, since he encounters so many decent folks willing to lend a hand.

“Homeless Chugakusei” represents a missed opportunity to show the reality of being homeless in Japan, though it may turn into a box-office bonanza. And Tamura? With his book having sold 2.22 million copies to date, he probably won’t be sleeping under a bridge any time soon. But if his 14-year-old self met his soft-centered on-screen incarnation, would they recognize each other?

Having slept rough myself for four months long ago in Los Angeles, I believe I know the answer: No. Putting a roof over your head is easy; getting the street out of your soul can take a lifetime.

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