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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008

'Kodomo no Kodomo'

Pregnant at 11 as kids decide to be adults


Teenage pregnancy has always been with us, but attitudes toward it have changed. A generation ago, the situation of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's daughter — 17, pregnant and unwed — would have inspired conservative tut-tutting. Now it's a cause of conservative celebration.

Kodomo no Kodomo Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Baby baby: Haruna Amari plays a pregnant 11-year-old. © "KODOMO NO KODOMO" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Koji Hagiuda
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 27, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But would those same conservatives be celebrating if she were 11? That's the age of the pregnant heroine in Koji Hagiuda's new film "Kodomo no Kodomo (A Child's Child)." Almost certainly not, and rightly so. In the real world, girls who conceive so young are often the victims of poverty and abuse and risk severe physical and emotional problems.

"Kodomo no Kodomo," however, takes an unexpectedly positive view of its heroine's condition, but it is not Japan's answer to "Juno," the 2007 hit film accused of glamorizing teen pregnancy. In contrast to Ellen Paige's snarky, self-aware heroine, Haruna (Haruna Amari), the title's "Kodomo," is a naive, tomboyish country girl who may be blunt and even defiant, but doesn't have an ironic bone in her body.

Also, she is no victim — when she goes on a bike ride to a nearby park with gormless classmate Hiroyuki (Yuya Kawamura) and watches him take a pee next to a huge tree, she is the one who suggests a game of "rubbing" ("kuttsukekko") in its recesses.

What follows are changes in Haruna's body she doesn't understand. One day, she spots her older sister, Akimi (Mitsuki Tanimura), lending money to a friend for an abortion and, knowing only that the friend is pregnant, later hands her a few coins of her own "for the baby."

When an earnest new teacher, Miss Yagi (Kumiko Aso), gives the class a sex-education lesson a light goes on in Haruna's head: She's pregnant, too. She goes to Yagi with her problem, but the teacher refuses to believe her. In fact, no one takes her or her expanding stomach seriously until she confesses, accidentally, to Mika (Risako Ito), a bossy but sympathetic class leader who advises an abortion, but Haruna can already hear a heartbeat and decides to have the baby.

When the other kids learn about Haruna's pregnancy, at Mika's urging they pledge to keep it secret from adults. Incredibly, they succeed, since even Haruna's mom (Yoshiko Miyazaki), an earthy if dithery sort, remains oblivious.

Based on a comic by Akira Sasou, "Kodomo no Kodomo" is less a social-problem film than a fantasy about kids taking on adult roles and challenges and, against all odds, pulling through. But instead of unfolding in a fantasy universe — Hogwarts or Narnia — it takes place in the Japanese countryside in the here and now (the film was shot entirely on location in Akita Prefecture), which may lead some — and not only literal-minded types — to dismiss it as nonsense or worse.

But Hagiuda, whose 2007 drama "Shindo" was about another unusual girl (a musical prodigy played by superidol Riko Narumi), takes the viewpoint of his young characters with sensitivity to not only their dreams of triumph over the adult world, but their real-life relationships in and outside of the classroom.

They are not always nice — especially to the well-meaning, but rigid Miss Yagi, whom they tease relentlessly — but they are natural, if a shade on the stereotyped side. (But then, so were the characters in "Tom Sawyer," another tale of kids conspiring thrillingly, if improbably, against adults.)

Hagiuda also comments sharply on the idiocies and hypocrisies of parents and teachers in dealing with the burgeoning sexuality of tweens, while tenderly celebrating the process of pregnancy and birth. At the same time, he does not ignore certain the real-world consequences of Haruna's condition, including the scandalized reactions of PTA mothers, though he softens the action, sexual and otherwise, to remove it from the realm of the raw and sordid.

This approach places "Kodomo no Kodomo" in an odd category — a serious film about a serious subject that is more wish fulfillment than realism. But it also shows tweens and teens behaving like competent, caring adults, instead of the hormone-crazed monsters that many adults fear.

I liked the film's kids, starting with the plucky Haruna (played without a false note by newcomer Haruna Amari) — though I couldn't help feeling sorry for the hapless Miss Yagi. Thanks to her, I now have a new nightmare — teaching a roomful of obstreperous fifth graders the facts of life.


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