Having a baby is child’s play in the cheerful, idiosyncratic but enthralling Japanese dramedy “Child by Children.” Making “Juno” look like a conservative exercise, pic has a carefree approach to credulity, but maintains internal logic in its story about a pregnant 12-year-old. Well helmed, adroitly scripted and blessed with excellent perfs, particularly from child thesp Haruna Amari, pic deserves a wide audience. However, despite “Children’s” non-explicit approach, the hot-button topic may lead to censorship problems outside the fest circuit.
Haruna (Haruna Amari) is a grade-schooler who, like her two best gal pals, has just started getting her period. Dancing to pop songs is in, and noisy, sweaty boys are definitely out. The one boy Haruna enjoys spending time with is mild-mannered Hiro (Yuya Kawamura), who likewise has just begun puberty. A quite innocent, long-shot chat between the pair about pubic hair leads to an “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” scenario. Conversation culminates in Haruna’s suggestion that they rub their “whiskers” together. Camera sweeps upward to contemplate a leafy tree, suggesting that nature will take its course.
Soon afterward, concerned about her pupils’ sniggering attitude to human biology, grade-school teacher Ms Yagi (Kumiko Aso) launches a campaign to teach sex education. During the sexually edifying classes, Haruna starts to put one and one together and realizes she and Hiro will soon make three. In an astute plot twist, the teacher, so emphatic about students having the right information, has no time to listen to Haruna and remains oblivious to the child’s state.
A chain reaction of loose lips means Haruna’s peers do find out about her condition, but the students, led by class president Mika (Risako Ito), collectively keep Haruna’s pregnancy secret from the adults. That Haruna is clearly bulging at the waistline and eating ravenously at and between meals, without a single adult noticing anything unusual, offers prime evidence that the yarn is not meant to be taken literally. Pic maintains a lighthearted tone throughout but never loses the courage of its convictions: A clever gag that flirts with danger at the 90-minute mark clearly demonstrates the helmer has his audience in the palm of his hand.
Assiduously assembled script, adapted by helmer Koji Haguida and “Linda Linda Linda” scribe Wakako Miyashita from Akira Saso’s popular manga, deceptively appears to be aimed at kiddie auds. Even from a country where the ingenue pose is a cornerstone of female sexuality, this is an audacious film, but it never sensationalizes. Ironically, Japan’s censorship debates have been prompted mainly by poorly made films awash in sexual violence.
Child thesps outnumber adult actors by a ratio of least 4:1, and there’s not a dud among them. Central thesp Amari is outstanding, delivering lines with juvenile casualness and navigating adult scenarios (like giving birth) with convincing maturity. Grown-ups are also solid.
Tech credits are tops for Japanese indie fare.