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Bullying is an evergreen theme of Japanese films centered on teens, with the focus typically on the victims.

But in “Forgiven Children,” Eisuke Naito’s clear-eyed, hard-hitting drama, a bullying incident results in a death that ruins the lives of the perpetrator and his family. Based on actual cases (which are not detailed on the film’s website), the film has the sort of subject matter that often lends itself to high-charged melodrama and an all-is-well ending.

True, tears flow and voices are raised, but there is also a legal, moral and psychological complexity that reflects the messiness of reality, in which storybook endings have no place.

Forgiven Children (Yurusareta Kodomotachi)
Rating
Director Eisuke Naito
Run Time 131 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens June 1, 2020

The protagonist is 13-year-old Kira Ichikawa (Yu Uemura), the sharp-eyed leader of a small gang of budding delinquents, though one of the boys, the timid-seeming Itsuki (Takuya Abe), is bullied by Kira and the others. One day, while the boys are playing by the river, Kira grabs Itsuki’s handmade crossbow and aims it at Gurimu (Ryuju Sumikawa), a small boy who is another frequent bullying target. Itsuki steps in front of Gurimu to shield him — and takes Kira’s arrow fatally in the throat.

Kira lies to a police detective — Itsuki, he says, didn’t come to the riverbank — but the cops have assembled evidence, such as surveillance photos and text messages, that lead Kira to confess.

End of story? Not quite, since Kira’s lawyer convinces a lenient juvenile court judge that the poor child was intimidated into confessing — and Kira is set free.

An internet mob, outraged by what it regards as a miscarriage of justice, soon sets out to punish Kira and his parents. And Itsuki’s parents, their tears and anguish dismissed by the judge, file a civil suit. From celebrating his freedom with a karaoke party, Kira and his parents are soon on the run. Flash forward six months: Kira is in a new school with a new name, but his past is not yet done with him.

The temptation is to label Kira a heartless monster and his parents, particularly his loudly protective mother (Yoshi Kuroiwa), callous enablers. But Naito, who also directed the 2016 dark fantasy “Litchi Hikari Club” and the 2018 shocker “Liverleaf,” shows us a kid who is neither devil nor angel, and is as unlike his new classmates as a hungry stray dog is from a beloved house pet. When a lonely bullied girl named Momoko (Yukino Nagura) falls for him, it is like calling out to like.

However, Kira refuses to be crushed by his troubles, a key reason being his relationship with his mother, who is fierce, if blind, in her devotion. In Kuroiwa’s no-holds-barred performance, she is not only his tireless defender, but also the closest thing he has to a friend.

Playing Kira, newcomer Yu Uemura is reminiscent of Yuya Yagura’s abandoned boy in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2004 masterpiece “Nobody Knows.” Both have eyes that pierce and hearts that remain a mystery. Uemura is playing an angrier character with a harder core, but he makes Kira more sympathetic than not. This is not an easy task since Kira does not undergo the change of heart that, in the usual course of feel-good films, would have the audience’s tear ducts overflowing. In this, as in much else, “Forgiven Children” sticks to its own truths, uncomfortable ones included.

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