“Canary,” Akihito Shiota’s existential questioning of Japan’s family values, takes as its jumping-off point the cult responsible for the 1995 sarin nerve-gas attack in Tokyo — presented here as a prime example of poor parenting skills. Left rootless by the cult’s break-up, 12-year-old Koichi treks cross-country with prepubescent runaway Yuki, who’s fleeing her abusive dad. Shiota piles tons of symbolic baggage on his pint-size protagonists, who luckily rise to the challenge. Belatedly bowing at ImaginAsian theaters in Gotham (where it opened July 25) and Los Angeles (Aug. 8), the 2005 road movie proves somewhat less impressive than its juve thesps.
“Canary” opens with Koichi (Hoshi Ishida), having escaped from child-welfare services, ducking helicopters that may or may not be tracking him as he seeks to rescue his little sister and reunite with his terrorist mom in hiding. Meanwhile, Yuki (Mitsuki Tanimura), a part-time prostitute, finds herself fending off the handcuff-wielding advances of the john who picked her up.
Like pictures as diverse as “Forbidden Games” and “The Night of the Hunter,” “Canary” puts a slightly fantastical tinge on its tale of children in peril. In the pic’s most successful blend of the everyday and the magical, a running Koichi suddenly appears in front of the john’s car, causing it to flip over like an overturned beetle until Yuki crawls out to join Koichi, who is staring, stupefied, at the wreck. The two then dash off through bucolic fields and delicately patterned rice paddies.
Frequent flashbacks to Koichi’s initiation into the Nirvana cult fill in the character’s backstory, explaining his alternating flashes of trust and paranoia. Shiota’s reconstruction of the compound, with everyone dressed in ragged white cotton and weird headgear (except for the elite in maroon silk), features enforced rituals and extreme punishments visited upon the recalcitrant Koichi. Separated from his mother, who returns only to lovingly shove him further into the cult, Koichi finally accepts the fascistic rigmarole as the sole means of regaining his lost family, even long after the cult has disbanded.
While Koichi is fixated on reconstituting the past, Yuki leans toward roping everyone she meets into makeshift familial units. If her regular trick, a grandfatherly old man, cooperates fully, others prove more stubborn, like the two warring lesbians with whom the kids take shelter in a fog-bound no man’s land.
Shiota’s deep concern for the fate of Japan’s youth, the impetus of several of his films, leads him to hammer home ideas with heavy-handed symbolism — everything reads as a negative or positive version of family. Even the evil Nirvana clan is miraculously transformed into one big happy recycling collective of disaffected members who welcome back Koichi.
Lenser Yutaka Yamazaki, probably not coincidentally the cinematographer of both Hirokazu Kore-eda’s cult-themed “Distance” and lost-children-themed “Nobody Knows,” overlays his compelling compositions with ominous quietude.