Earlier this year I lost two 14 year old girls. We were at an anime convention when two of the three teenagers in our group went, courtesy, to buy some food. They didn’t come back. The Seattle Convention Center was packed with tens of thousands of people, most dressed as characters from.
It was a frantic hour before they returned, apologizing (phone had no data; convention center had no Wi-Fi; lost track of time) after already playing through all the scenarios hellish in my mind. Have they been removed? Hit by a car? Forgot where we said to meet? Killed by a demon?
So it was with the memory of that lingering panic that I settled down to watch Old Enough on. This is a long-running Japanese documentary series where TV cameras follow children as young as 2 years old as their parents send them on their very first errand away from home.
The program is called Hajimete no Otsukai (My First Run) in Japan, where it has been running for decades. A few of the toddlers we see on Netflix episodes can probably drive now.
Some of the errands are pretty straightforward – in one, a 2-year-old ran a few buildings to a dry cleaner to drop off the working blanks for his dad, the sushi chef. It took him a while, but he got the job done.
But in another case, a boy had to wander home from his grandfather’s tangerine fields, make himself a container filled with tangerine juice, and bring the juice back to his thirsty family. I’m a Gen Xer, the age group known to be left alone pretty much since birth, and even I can’t imagine myself dealing with that as a preschooler.
Netflix has 20 episodes, and they are each around 10-20 minutes long. The show is subtitled, which is a dealbreaker for some, but I think it adds some extra charm. The narrator is the sassy, sassy guy I’m used to from Japanese shows. He says it as it is, saying “Are you sure that’s a good idea, mom?” as a mother waves to her child and grunts, “The doors have opened, but the circuits aren’t connected yet” when the child is distracted by toy capsule machines.
Hearing the parents speak directly to the children without being dubbed adds to the drama. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you can hear the worry and wonder in their tones as they try to lead their child on a task. They’re not sure Little Hiroki can do it, but they can’t let him know.
Of course, there’s been a social outcry over whether it’s safe. A child had to walk a full kilometer (over half a mile) along a busy street, using a homemade signal flag to push through traffic. And yes, it’s Japan, not the less child-friendly and more crime-suspecting United States. But I’m half a century older than that kid, and I got horribly lost in Japan once. Watching Old Enough, you’ll almost certainly remember your earliest adventures outside the home, and perhaps think about the responsibility you give (or don’t give) to your own children, if you have any.
Bad things can happen anywhere and to anyone, but the show’s producers say they check routes ahead of time, and you can see cameramen following (sometimes frantically running to follow legs 2 years). Once, when a little girl was strolling and it was dark, the film crew turned on her car headlights to light her way home. With that kind of adult supervision, I never felt the kids were really in danger.
And it’s hard to argue with the sense of satisfaction kids develop in themselves by doing those errands. The chores are nothing for the adults, but they are huge for the little ones.
My own teenage daughter just got back from a school trip to the East Coast. Although she was carefully chaperoned, there were still times when she must have felt like she was stepping into the big world for the first time, alone in Manhattan, able to walk into any store at a reasonable distance without an adult nearby. It is a freedom that cannot be explained, it must be experienced.
Anyone can get lost anywhere – I always get pissed off when I think of our brief disappearance from the anime convention. But Old Enough offers plenty of intriguing questions to discuss, and it’s also pure family fun. The world is waiting, children.
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