Taking a slower pace to the usual Hollywood fare, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows is carefully considered, expertly pieced together and emotionally captivating.
Set in Tokyo, Nobody Knows tells the story of four young children surviving together on their own. The film is based on a true event, which occurred in the late 1980’s, known as the Sugamo child abandonment case. While the basic premise is the same, four children, each born to different fathers, left to fend for themselves – Koreeda presents a much less horrific account of events.
The film opens with mother Keiko and her 12-year-old son Akira (Yuya Yagira) meeting the landlords of their new apartment. Keiko says her husband is overseas, so it’s just the two of them. Little do the landlords know there are three more children: 10-year-old girl Kyoko, 7-year-old boy Shigeru and 5-year-old girl Yuki. With an air of child-like mischievousness, Keiko and Akira haul two suitcases containing Yuki and Shigeru up to the apartment. “You did well!” Keiko congratulates as they climb out. As dinner is served, Keiko explains the rules of the new apartment. “Don’t scream or talk in loud voices and don’t go outside” she says, jokingly threatening boisterous Shigeru with a kancho (enema) if he can’t keep to the rules. Keiko is playful, but something doesn’t quite sit right with her and it doesn’t take long for a nagging sense of apprehension to set in.
Early on, Keiko confides in Akira that she’s met someone new, a nice man who she might marry. “Wait a little more” she says, then they can all live happily together and the kids can go to school. Akira, giving a guarded, single word reply of “again?” as he lowers his head, reveals his weariness because he’s heard it all before. Mature (by necessity) beyond his years, Akira’s head is grounded in reality while the mother’s is in the clouds. After her first departure from the children, Keiko stumbles into the apartment late at night, gleefully announcing her return with not an ounce of concern for the kids. “She stinks of booze,” says Keiko to Akira as she pours a glass of water for her mother.
Koreeda’s unique ability to work with children draws uninhibited, organic performances from his cast of young actors. Yuya Yagira (Akira) in particular shines, his performance earning the award for Best Actor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. You’ll find yourself totally immersed in their world with Koreeda’s gentle pace and extensive use of intimate close-ups on the children, allowing him to take note of the small details of their existence as they spend days cooped up in the apartment.
The idea of children being left by themselves is horrifying, and watching them all alone in the small apartment we quickly succumb to feelings of helplessness. We know of the children’s plight, but are in a state powerless to do anything. Akira holds together their makeshift family, shopping, cooking, paying bills and so on. There is a sense of admiration to be found in his responsibility and resourcefulness – a testament to the resilience children can possess. However, this is marred by the fact that he’s 12, should be at school, playing baseball with his friends, reading comics and enjoying the childhood he’s entitled to. What about his hopes and dreams? I couldn’t help but wonder. They are lost to his selfish mother whose idea of parenting is to send him envelopes containing cash and small notes of encouragement. “I’m counting on you to look after them.”
Forget melodrama and clichés, Nobody Knows is as authentic as cinema experiences come. With his other critically acclaimed works, Maboroshi (1995), Still Walking (2008), and I Wish (2011), under his belt, Koreeda has undoubtedly ascended to the ranks of Japan’s best creative directors. While not for the faint-of-heart, I highly recommend Nobody Knows. If you’re looking for something more upbeat, I Wish offers a similar experience, a story firmly centered on the lives of children but with a much more cheerful outlook on the world.