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Nobody Knows, an extraordinary film from Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu, is a heartbreaking and touching story about how selfish a single mother can be to her four children, and how resilient children can be. Kicked out of several apartments for her large brood, Keiko (Japanese pop star You) sneaks them in to a new one (two inside the suitcases) and goes over the house rules: No loud noises. They must stay hidden inside the apartment all day, every day. Only Akira, the oldest, leaves to do grocery shopping while she works. He also makes dinner while Keiko goes out on dates (implying to her children that she's looking for a rich husband so that they can all live in a big house together).
One day, Keiko (not a villain, but an unsympathetic, helium-voiced child herself) announces she's going away for a few weeks to work. She soon emerges every few months, only to drop off money before taking off again, at one point, for good. Akira forgoes any normal 12-year-old's upbringing (even school) to play mother, father, even Santa Claus to his siblings. There's a trapped feeling in Nobody Knows. For the younger kids, it's the inability to escape to the outside world. For Akira, it's seeing the outside world and knowing he has too many responsibilities to participate in it--when he tries, the results are disastrous. As the children grow up and resources become more scarce, the film's tenacity to show every painful detail of their existence slows the pace to almost a standstill. Still, it's a lovely, haunting tale beset with unforced performances from its young actors, particularly Yagira, who won the best actor prize at Cannes. -- Ellen A. Kim
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The movie is shot so well and simplistically over a years' (filming) time, so you can actually see these young children grow and you get a real sense of their world. It's a long film built from a narrative/storytelling approach so though it can seem slow-moving, it's actually quite a beautiful lens into this shockingly beautiful based-on-real-life event.
The final scene & choice of music with Tate Takako's "hosueki" is just absolutely compelling, providing quite the emotional outlet after such a long film that relies very little on any other music.
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"Nobody Knows" begins when Keiko (played by the Japanese pop star You) deserts her young children in a run-down apartment in a nameless Japanese city with barely enough money to pay the bills. Her oldest son Akira (Yuya Yagira) must fend for himself and protect his younger brother Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and his sisters Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). Akira tries his best to be a parent, borrowing money from dishonest family acquaintances, buying Christmas gifts for his siblings and relying on new friends for help, including the young Saki (Hanae Kan).
Many films have captured the gritty experience of urban survival in a busy and unfriendly city, and plenty are told from the perspective of children. But unlike movies such as the recent "In America," this story is characterized by an utter lack of sentimentality and an extraordinary subtlety. The movie merely hints at the family's past before the opening of the film -- Koreeda is wisely content to develop his characters through action without succumbing to unnecessary narration or expository dialogue.
As such, the storyline of "Nobody Knows" is a loose framework rather than an intricate plot. With sparse dialogue and minimalist production, the film feels wholly authentic, even documentary-like (not coincidently). Koreeda actually hired unprofessional actors, working with them in free-form improvisation and filming the story chronologically. As a result, the performances are astonishingly convincing -- the actors literally age on-screen. (Yuya Yagira, a novice, won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.)
Koreeda is keenly aware of the power that a slowly unfolding story can have. The film's quietness and slow pacing make the few plot developments and revelations all the more emotional. Rather than relying on dialogue, Koreeda reveals characters' emotions and thoughts in ways that many directors never attempt, through lingering smiles and exchanged glances. The intense connection to these characters and the ultimate emotional payoff at the climax are results of these stylistic choices.
Above all, Koreeda is a brilliant visual storyteller. With his cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, he creates a style that perfectly complements the fly-on-the-wall nature of his movie. The camera is patiently kept in one place, and as result much of the action takes place on the edges, even outside, of the frame. Although Koreeda and Yutaka carefully plan each shot, the film's cinematography still feels experimental and beautifully authentic. Yutaka's garish lighting and the set's close quarters, emphasize the seclusion and loneliness of the children's apartment. This symbolism extends to the repeated isolation of visual patterns (Akira on staircases, for example) to demonstrate the hopelessness of the children's existence: As the children revisit old places, each time things seem worse than before.
But, as he did with 1998's "After Life," Koreeda finds unexpected humor and optimism even in the darkest of situations. At one point, Yuki's hilariously squeaky shoes represent the joyous privilege of leaving the house for the first time. In another scene, hand-held camera movement and rapid editing are used to show Akira's exhilaration as he watches a train pass quickly by, dreaming that one day it will take him far away.
Too many contemporary Hollywood films are content to tell rather than show. Koreeda's authentic direction is a refreshing reminder of cinema at its quiet best. But more importantly -- and perhaps more surprisingly, given the simplicity of its style and its plot -- "Nobody Knows" is highly affecting and entirely engrossing. It also constitutes a major social statement: In the late 1980s, when the plight of the four abandoned children came to light, many Japanese were shocked that their society had ever allowed this to happen. But the film, with its patient camera work and natural storyline, make their dark fates seem all too familiar.
(Originally published in the Yale Daily News, February 25, 2005.)
This seems at first the story of a loving, if selfish and immature mother. . . sure, she raises her family in an unconventional way, but they seem to be a close-knit, generally happy bunch. They even seem fine at first when she leaves them alone with nothing but a note and an envelope of money, but the money starts to run out, and Akira is forced to borrow from his siblings' fathers to keep afloat. When their mother does return, there seems to be a hint of resentment, especially from the older children.
Then we find out just how selfish she can be, as their mother leaves her job and children outright to be with a man. She doesn't even tell them what she's doing-- Akira finds out by calling around to check up on her. I don't think he actually tells his siblings where she's run off to, but Kyoko, at least, seems to know they've been abandoned from fairly early on. She tries to shelter the others with promises their mother will return, but even they become more doubtful as time goes by.
Akira does an admirable job of holding the household together at first, but goes through his own selfish period when he befriends some schoolboys, and spends more time playing games with them than caring for the home and his siblings. By the time he learns their true nature and returns to his home life, the place is in squallor and the utilities are all being turned off. Though their living situation gets worse all the time, surprisingly, the children remain close, and pull together to survive as best they can.
The fact these children are all amateurs makes their acting in this film all the more amazing-- they can convey more emotion in a glance than many Western actors can in a page full of dialogue. I felt connected to these children, and concerned for their well-being, more than any other movie characters I can think of. The adults who seemed to see the situation, yet did nothing to help, infuriated me! Even just the passers-by who saw a group of poor, dirty children in the street yet didn't stop to help, or even question why, made me angry. For all the concern of what might happen if anyone saw them, these children seemed pretty much invisible most of the time.
The ending is incomplete, yes. We never know whether their mother comes back, or whether social services step in at any point. The lack of resolution is mildly annoying, but it also leaves one with the impression that these children are still out there, still doing whatever it takes to survive and stay together. That's the sort of movie this is; salvaging hope from even the darkest and most dire situations.
As unbelievable as the plot sounds, this film succeeds because it is surprisingly believable. The simple piano score, the raw, "documentary-style" of the film, and the slow, but precise pacing all compliment the memorable, realistic acting, especially from Yagira, playing the oldest boy.
Yagira's performance is touching and heartfelt without being "cute" (steven speilberg would be apalled). When the food and water run out, he does not waste time crying or throwing a tantrum. Instead, he tediously pumps water from the local playground pump and shamelessly bums leftover sushi from a restaurant for him and the others, all the while smiling from time to time, dreaming of baseball and school (which he has never attended).
Though they live day to day, looking more grungy and detatched from society,ironically, out of their harsh living, they acquire a compassion and vitality for life much stronger than that of most of their peers in the civilized world. Their newfound strength ultimately helps them to cope with an almost unthinkable tragedy that evokes scenes so powerfully simple that they are likely to remain in the viewer's mind long after the movie is over.
As the film begins, the family is moving into yet another apartment; they are continuously evicted for having too many children. The two youngest children arrive smuggled in suitcases, already a sign of the startling neglect to come, as the mother portrays this as a game. The hot, tired children unfold from their suitcase prisons as the mother laughs, claps her hands and tells them "Good job!" in her Minnie Mouse voice. The children's flighty mother is barely more than a child herself, unable to cope with real life and care for her large brood (each child has a different father).
It is never explicitly stated what her job is, but she frequently leaves the children for long stretches of time, expecting eldest son Akira (Yuya Yagira) to care for ten-year-old Kyoko, seven-year-old Shigeru, and five-year-old Yuki. The children are like children everywhere: they long to play outside, be rambunctious, play in the park, be free to dream. Instead, they are virtual prisoners, unable to leave the apartment lest they be caught. Even the small balcony is off limits. Akira does all of the outside shopping, bill paying, and cooking. None of the children go to school. "Why do you want to go to school?" their mother asks. "Famous people don't go to school." Like who? Akira demands. His mother can't come up with a suitable answer.
The inevitable happens: their mother is infatuated with the latest boyfriend, and skips town for good. Akira holds off telling the other children for as long as possible; after all, their mother is frequently gone for months at a time. He is forced to spend down, but it isn't enough. The utilities are eventually cut off, and the apartment descends into a pit of hell, with garbage covering everything. The children must use the bathroom in the park and wash their clothes in a fountain, and survive off of leftover sushi handouts. Akira falls in with a group of thug-like high schoolers who use him, taunt him, and try to get him to shoplift, and the youngest children suffer the most. Somber Kyoko taps out melodies on her toy piano, Shigeru breaks the rules by running wild outside, and Yuki colors and draws pictures that cover every inch of the apartment. Their situation becomes more and more dire; even though the landlord's wife has seen the state of the apartment, no social services are called in. The children are left to fester as their clothes unravel and they slowly succumb to malnutrition. An accident occurs, prompted out of boredom, that changes their close-knit lives. The ending is sparse, haunting, and we are not told what becomes of the children, or if their mother was ever found.
The child actors were essentially filmed living in the apartment throughout an entire year of filming, so in some ways, "Nobody Knows" plays out like a documentary. The scene where they play in the park for the first time was really their first time leaving the apartment in months. It is heartwrenching to watch them spying on "normal" children down below, children who take school for granted, are allowed to ride bikes and play in the park. There is no creative outlet, no exercise, no nourishing food, and yet, although weakened, their spirits still demonstrate the resilience of childhood. Kore-eda's haunting portrait of solitude and survival at its darkest is difficult to watch, but worth the journey.