The Homeless Student

Original title
Homuresu Chugakusei
Japanese title
  • ホームレス中学生
Running time
116 minutes
10 August 2010
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Homelessness within modern Japan has rarely been a topic seriously explored within the realm of cinema. With the occasional documentary treatment, as well as specific examples such as Hirokazu Kore-eda's somber film Nobody Knows (2004), the exploration of a serious social issue such as homelessness has oftentimes been omitted when looking through the cinematic lens. Whether this is due to a lack of marketability or simply avoidance is up for question, but the issue certainly remains a relevant one to consider - even more so given the economical ramifications of the recent global recession. This same recession has most certainly increased the amount of homeless individuals and families throughout Japan, if not the world, giving rise towards once again engaging such a controversial issue. Tomoyuki Furumaya's The Homeless Student is one such film that confronts not only the issue of homelessness, but also touches upon its effects concerning the youth.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Japanese comedian Hiroshi Tamura, The Homeless Student paints an overall serious but occasionally comical cinematic portrait of the trials and tribulations that accompany being homeless-more importantly, that of experiencing it through the eyes of a teenager. The mere outset of the story, as ridiculous as it may seem, is similar to an event that really happened to Hiroshi (portrayed here by Teppei Koike, one half of the Japanese duo WaT), in which coming home after school one day, he confusingly finds all his family's furniture outside the apartment with an eviction note abruptly stuck to the front door. When his older sister Yukiko (Chizuru Ikewaki) and brother Kenichi (Akihiro Nishino) arrive, they are equally as confused. To further complicate matters, their father suddenly appears to confront the childrenand rather nonchalantly instructs them that they must now fend for themselves and make it on their own-upon which he rudely abandons them. With their mother having passed away years ago, the three start to conjure up ideas as to where to live, but Hiroshi suddenly decides he can make it on his own and scurries off, leaving his siblings in a stupor as to what to make of the entire situation. It doesn't help that he has no plan as to what to do next and ultimately decides he'll just figure it out along the way.

What soon develops is a harsh lesson in reality for Hiroshi, as he learns to grapple with surviving on his own within a dense urban metropolis. Compared to the explicit nature of the novel-in which Hiroshi had actually eaten cardboard in order to feed himself-the treatment of Hiroshi as a character within the film versus the book is viewed quite differently here. While isolation seems to be a huge component for many homeless individuals, the film treats Hiroshi's experience - although still quite rough-as more self-imposed that anything else. He has the opportunity to seek shelter and be fed by going to live with his older siblings, but simply opposes doing so. This logic would certainly seem foolish to anyone-why would one will themselves to a state of perpetual starvation and uncertainty? These questions certainly arise when one considers that Hiroshi could always accompany his family if he wanted too, which makes his situation something not quite as drastic as it initially appears to be. Couple this with the fact that Teppei Koike looks entirely too old for his portrayal of a 14-year-old Hiroshi - with the actor actually being in his early 20s during the film's production - and the sense of disbelief is further solidified.

Believability steadily remains a major factor when viewing The Homeless Student, and for proper reason. The nature in which the story is laid out is rather surprising to say the least, and almost impractical to consider given the circumstances surrounding Hiroshi's detachment from his siblings after their eviction. While the harsh realities of street life are presented within the film, they are never fully implicated as anything more than the basic essentials - food, bathing and shelter. A majority of the film focuses on the various tasks Hiroshi must undertake in order to fulfill these needs, but it never fully escapes being somewhat implausible. Most of Hiroshi's experiences of being homeless are never showcased as emotionally or physically draining, which is mostly due to the film portraying his encounters with complete strangers as highly unrealistic. For the most part, they show an incredible amount of decency and hospitality towards him, which removes much of the realism of Hiroshi's situation and presents it more as a side excursion for him than anything else. The film ultimately appears to make it out that Hiroshi doesn't have the slightest chance of dying from hunger or lack of shelter - it simply doesn't allow these to become a possibility.

And while the implausible nature of his actions is undoubtedly confusing at first, we slowly start to learn and explore his reasoning for such decisions in the film's latter, more family-centered half. This is where the film's direction ultimately recuperates from many of the seemingly irrational actions taken during the first part. Focused primarily on the family unit and the bond they share - all the while still remaining relatively homeless - Hiroshi, Yukiko and Kenichi are back together again to guide and help each other through their strenuous process of displacement. While we learn the reasoning for Hiroshi's decision to live a life without a home, it ultimately brings about a better understanding of Hiroshi as a character and the importance of family. More emotionally involving than the first half, it certainly injects some much-needed realism into the film by exploring concepts that are seemingly much more believable to us as the audience. Situations pertaining to the involvement of a social worker and familial responsibility are showcased, which establishes itself as a more serious narrative concerning the ramifications of being both homeless and young.

It's probably not too far off to say that The Homeless Student presents an interesting autobiographical look into a single teenager's struggle with being homeless - which further branches out to include an entire family struggling with such a burden - but it also doesn't effectively showcase the truthful realities surrounding being a homeless individual. For the most part, the film never truly removes Hiroshi completely from out of the loving brace of his family, friends and neighbors, which significantly diminishes our attitude towards his situation. Nevertheless, The Homeless Student still remains an intriguing autobiographical film concerning one of Japan's most beloved comedians - even if other films have handled similar subject matter with better consideration and thoughtfulness.