Hirokazu Koreeda did a fantastic job of telling the story of these young children, abandoned by their mother, who have to fight for survival.
The oldest boy, Arika Fukushima (Yûya Yagira) is smart, witty, and hard working. His mother often leaves him in charge to do everything from cooking, to paying the bills and taking care of his younger siblings. His mother is rarely around and sometimes she leaves money for the kids; which is never enough for the lengths of time she is gone.
The film depicts the family which essentially falls into poverty as the bills do not get paid. Arika always looks at other ‘regular’ children with envy, who attend school and have parents which look after them. His younger siblings also have not gone to school and they look to Akira to teach them how to write and do basic math.
Akira, in many ways, takes on the role of a father, and eventually a friend he meets, a girl about his age who is often skipping school named Saki (Hanae Kan) in a way takes on the role of a mother to his siblings. Akira is so afraid of being picked up by child services, that when his younger sister Yuki falls from a chair and dies, he and Saki bury her body secretly near the airport.
This film is sad indeed, and is able to pull quite firmly on the heart string. One gets the impression of what it would be like to live in such extreme poverty, and often throughout the film, conversations are overheard about kids doing poorly in school, or the viewer sees people being wasteful. These references apparently are intended to emphasize the sense of isolation of the poor and how much average people take their blessings for granted.
The final message in this film seems to be the message of appreciation for what one has. Akira and his siblings are happy to have each other, they are also appreciative of their new found friend Saki, who helps them out as much as she can. This film bears a slight resemblance to the Korean film Heart Is…, which depicts a brother and sister abandoned by their mother.