Essentially Canary is a sensitive drama about lost innocence, a common theme in contemporary Japanese films. Young children or teenagers who for one reason or another are left unable to assimilate to regular modern society. Canary takes an extreme, though fully realistic example of this; a kid who has been brainwashed by a cult at a young age. This cult was clearly based on Aum Shinrikyo, the religious sect responsible for gassing the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing a dozen people and injuring thousands, and known for supposedly using radical methods to program their thousands of followers.
Leading the film is the 12 year old Koichi, at first sight a very normal kid, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s something off about him. We find out that perhaps about a year earlier his mother brought him and his little sister into the ‘Nirvana’ cult, where they underwent strict mental ‘training’ i.e. brainwashing. After the cult performed gas attacks many of their facilities were raided and children such as Koichi were saved. But with his mother being on the run, Koichi’s grandfather took custody of his little sister but not him. Koichi was left with the authorities because grandpa decided Koichi was messed up beyond repair. The film opens with him having escaped child services and setting out on a quest to walk hundreds of miles to Tokyo to be reunited with his sister. He runs into a girl named Yuki who has some severe troubles at home and doesn’t want to go back there, so she decides to help Koichi. However, Koichi’s messed up personality and idiosyncrasy make for a difficult relationship between the two.
As Canary progresses, and Koichi and Yuki have some interesting encounters on their way to Tokyo, we notice Yuki growing more attached to Koichi, even though his sternness never actually seems to waver for a second. Yet still we subtly feel the emotional and mental walls put inside of him being chipped away at ever so slowly. At several moments during the film we are presented with flashbacks of Koichi’s life inside the cult. These are on the one hand very interesting to watch, seeing an Aum-like cult from the inside, but on the other hand they kind of negatively influence the pace of the film.
The first and foremost perk this movie possesses is two amazing young actors. Koichi and Yuki, played by Hoshi Ishida and Mitsuki Tanimura respectively, are highly convincing as children who have already been through way too much at a young age. Their forced early maturity is to a certain extent painful to observe, since you really want these 12 year-olds to be put in a healthy environment and just have fun lives. This is where the film thematically overlaps with Hirokazu Koreeda’s ‘Nobody Knows’, where children even younger than Koichi and Yuki are forced to take care of themselves, which seems freeing and fun at first but ends up dramatic. Although Canary never manages to become truly dark and devastating, it certainly has its intense moments and with the runtime well over 2 hours this is a heavy film. Like his earlier films ‘Moonlight Whispers’ and ‘Harmful Insect’, director Akihiko Shiota crafted another moving character study about damaged teenagers trying to find their way in a hostile and suppressing world. This one is undoubtedly his most polished work in this niche and deserves to be seen.