In a small Tokyo apartment, twelve-year-old Akira must care for his younger siblings after their mother leaves them and shows no sign of returning.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," a harrowing, tender film, was inspired by a real event known in Japan as "the affair of the four abandoned children of Nishi-Sugamo." The facts of the case, which achieved some notoriety in 1988, suggest the kind of story you might follow, with a mixture of prurience, revulsion and moralism, on Court TV or in a tabloid newspaper. Four children -- three of them without birth records, all of them the offspring of different fathers -- were left alone by their mother in a small Tokyo apartment, where they lived for six months without attracting any notice or intervention.
Their tale is a rich, awful congeries of primal and distinctly modern fears, from the universal childhood fantasy of parental abandonment to the more grown-up suspicion that big cities are places of cruel isolation and indifference. Mr. Kore-eda explores nearly every emotional nuance and implication of the story, without for an instant succumbing to sensationalism or melodrama. The content of "Nobody Knows," which should consolidate his reputation as one of Japan's most interesting and original filmmakers, is inherently upsetting, and watching the film is, to some extent, a punishing immersion in impotent dread.
In observing the helplessness of the four children, you become acutely aware of your own inability to do anything for them. Mr. Kore-eda's camera is so close to them -- navigating the narrow, cramped spaces of their home, zooming in on their faces, hands and feet -- that the sense of their aloneness becomes overwhelming. You are in on the secret of their existence and prevented from communicating it.
But because the movie also sticks closely to the children's point of view -- and in particular to the experience of Akira (Yuya Yagira), the oldest of the four and the one left in charge by his mother (You) -- it also offers a measure of relief. Akira, his two sisters, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), and their irrepressible (and perhaps mildly retarded) younger brother, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), are not quite aware of the horrific implications of their plight. They are, after all, accustomed to living with a childlike, erratic parent, who is capable of being funny and generous as well as neglectful. In the early scenes, their life with her has an adventurous, mischievous quality; the two smaller children are smuggled into the new apartment in suitcases, so their existence can be kept secret from the landlord.
And some of the spirit of fairy-tale adventure remains even after the mother has vanished, the money she left behind has dwindled and Akira's steadfastness has begun to fray into desperation. In reality, the idea of children fending for themselves is terrifying, but that terror is also what gives so many bedtime stories and young-adult novels their thrill. Children's literature, from the Brothers Grimm to "The Secret Garden" to Lemony Snicket, is heavily populated by foundlings, orphans and cast-off children whose pluck and resourcefulness feed fantasies of heroic self-sufficiency.
"Nobody Knows" is of course too naturalistic, and too disturbing, to be a movie for children, but it nonetheless engages the audience's wondering, childlike imagination as well as its worrying adult conscience. Though the responsibility of caring for his siblings weighs heavily on Akira, he does not entirely lose his capacity for fun and spontaneity. He also takes it upon himself to protect the younger ones, giving them gifts and holiday presents that he pretends are from their mother and keeping them supplied with playthings and treats when his meager budget allows.
Mr. Yagira was 12 when he began work on the film and 14 when he won the top acting prize in Cannes last year, beating out Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush and Gael García Bernal, among others. His performance is the key to the film's uncanny ability to capture the world of childhood from both inside and out; Akira is, of necessity, mature beyond his years, but also frighteningly unworldly, and Mr. Yagira, without the self-consciousness that young actors so often lean on, allows glimpses of the boy's complicated inner life to come through in small gestures and fleeting expressions.
"Nobody Knows" is not for the faint of heart, though it has no scenes of overt violence, and barely a tear is shed. It is also strangely thrilling, not only because of the quiet assurance of Mr. Kore-eda's direction, but also because of his alert, humane sense of sympathy. He is neither an optimist nor a sentimentalist -- like his previous films, "Maborosi," "After Life" and "Distance," this one presents a fairly bleak view of the modern world -- but he does keep an eye out for manifestations of decency, bravery and solidarity. These tend to be small and fleeting, and therefore all the more valuable and worth clinging to when his patient, meticulous eye uncovers them.
"Nobody Knows" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some upsetting scenes.
A. O. Scott, New York Times. 4th Feb 2005.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is the Japanese director whose breakthrough movie, After-Life, is gradually assuming cult status. It is a fantasy based on the idea that, after your death, you are asked to recall the most purely happy moment in your life so that it can be eternally re-created for your enjoyment. His follow-up, Distance - at Cannes in 2001 - was widely considered disappointing. However, his latest film, Nobody Knows (in Japanese, Daremo Shirinai) is a satisfying reminder of this director's talent for extending a single moment with superbly poised artistry.
Keiko is a single mum with four kids by different fathers, played here by the Japanese columnist and TV personality known simply as You. Flaky and irresponsible, she effectively sub-contracts parental duties to her eldest boy, 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) while she takes off with various boyfriends for days at a time. And then one day she simply never comes back, leaving Akira quite alone with his little sisters Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) and brother Shigeru (Hiei Kimura)
Kore-eda patiently tracks the children's secret existence as un-adult adults, minute by minute, with gentleness and acute observation. They do not become feral, but maintain, with a weird and moving dignity, the best semblance of family life possible as their flat becomes more and more run down. They are four souls alone in their own universe, abandoned and unloved like believers whose Creator has turned his back on them. Kore-eda gets miraculously fresh performances from the children and the film is absorbing, humane and deeply moving.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, Cannes 14th May 2004.
|8 (24%)||16 (47%)||8 (24%)||1 (3%)||1 (3%)|
Total Number of Responses: 34
Film Score (0-5): 3.85
108 people watch Kore-eda's 2004 film Nobody Knows. The emotional resonance of the film was incredibly strong for some - "A beautiful film, very touching and so sad too. Kore-eda seems to make films that really are so simple and honest but at the same time, superb film making." "Very sad." "Moving and poignant, amazing story, subtly told." "Gosh it was indeed a harrowing film, I felt I was watching a disaster unfolding without any fear from the participants themselves. The acting was without any self-consciousness, Akira was brilliantly portrayed, the scene at the end burying his sister will stay with me for a long while."
The performances from the children, particularly the lead, were noted by many people in their feedback - "Horribly believable, very moving. Love the acting - Akira wonderful!" "What an incredible film. Heart wrenching, agonising. What an amazing actor is Yuya Yagira." "Very well acted by everyone but it did need some editing - a good half hour less." "Beautifully acted, unremittingly sad film."
Some aspects of the film, particularly the length and pace, drew more negative comments from a number of people - "Too long." "Seen so many films about abandoned children looking after themselves and some excellent. This one was like watching paint dry." "The worst I have seen. Not clear what it was meant to be about." "The child actors are incredible. Thought it was a bit too long." "Like watching paint dry but not as entertaining." "Poignant film, showing the gradual decline of the children's lives - very sad. Film was too long and very slow in places."
Some people also wanted to call out the social commentary as either unbelievable or too believable - "Even in a wealthy country children can still slip through the net." "Sad tale. Poor reflection of Japanese society. Beautifully shot." "Rather too long but incredible performances from the children. Found it difficult to believe their situation wouldn't have been picked up on by someone living near them. As fictionalised reality you have to assume that was the case, but it would have been good to know what happened to the three survivors, as the ending left it difficult to see how they would carry on as was. Another interesting choice, thanks." "Enthralling. Unresolved but is anything ever? I did want to go to Japan, maybe not all of Japan." "Perhaps the film should have been titled "Nobody Wants To Know" since all the adults turned a blind eye and failed to take action. It was a sensitively told story and beautifully made film depicting the children's slide into feral disorder, hunger and poverty in a well-paced and believable way. It was thought-provoking and raised a lot of questions and emotions for me."
"Can't wait to read more about the background."
"Power - amazing actors, sad but..."
"Great acting but too long!"
"A bit slow moving, but good film!"
"This film is an exaggeration of the revelations of childhood; that your parents are imperfect, you are more alone than you thought and that the world doesn't care. The children's mother is revealed as a feckless fantasist. all the adults who might step in to help can't be bothered and an initially thrilling 'Swallows and Amazons' world of gleeful independence turns increasingly desperate. In this it resembles a stark, Struwwelpeter like, pre-Disney fairytale of darkness. Such is the comforting child's eye view the impending doom is obscured and all the more shocking when it arrives. Beautifully played by all, the patina of grubby fingerprints in their world is wholly convincing."