2004Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Cast: Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura
obody Knows, the beautiful new Japanese film from director Hirokazu Koreeda, is a details film. The filmmaker does the details right—dropping them into his scenes quietly and precisely. And the details do right by the film’s audience—rewarding our patience and haunting our thoughts long after the final credits.
The movie works because its story is both so simple and insanely grim. In Tokyo, a single mother lives with her four children, each from a different father. In order to keep a good apartment or cheap rent or her job or simply their very basic near-but-not-quite-at-poverty-level lifestyle, mom insists on keeping the three youngest children a secret from the world. That means they can’t leave the apartment, they can never attend school, and they can never socialize with other kids. The oldest, and only "public" child, a 12-year-boy named Akira (Yuya Yagira), must keep the young ones in line and manage the house (food, clothes, and cleaning) while mom’s away at work.
Party of Four
“So what?” you say. In this modern era of working parents, the two-income trap, growing divorce rates, and the unending, interwoven cultural and economic strains that challenge our world’s families, what kid hasn’t had to heat up some cold pizza for dinner, from time to time? And you’d be right, but Akira’s mom isn’t Maggie Seaver; she’s not even Homer Simpson. She’s self-absorbed, manipulative, uncaring, and occasionally drunk; she might as well be a child herself. That is until she leaves one day and decides to never come back; that’s as in not ever, never.
As you can imagine, what follows for the children is a downward spiral. Akira is forced to push aside his own childhood in order to care for his caged siblings, scrounging for food, begging for money. Not good: in fact, miserable. And yet, Nobody Knows, while often painful to watch, is not unwatchable. On the contrary: it is as bewitching as it is disturbing. While the gloom is plenty thick, there are also equal parts youthful wonder, and strange fairy tale mysticism. The movie’s look is naturalistic, and its subject is bleak, but its tone, while hardly hopeful, is certainly magic.
It can be strange and clever, too. With Koreeda’s frequent close-up shots of the children’s feet—the frame cutting off at their shins briefly leaving the child’s identity unknown—something weird is going on. Like much of the movie, those feet—that standing up on tip-toes, those well-worn socks, that talk of growing out of old sneakers and finding bright new ones—they subtly and sadly dance their way around the process of growing up and of wanting to have grown up.
“And so he says, he says, “That’s where I put my cucumber!”
In that sense, Nobody Knows would make a perfect second film for a rainy day double feature. The first would be Nicholas Roeg’s mystical and bizarre 1971 Walkabout featuring a teenage girl and her younger brother abandoned in the Australian outback. The two films are obviously similar on the surface: parentless kids struggling to survive. And they are sharply different in their settings: vast and wild nature versus claustrophobic and anonymous city. Yet deeper still, both films pry thoughtfully into the essence of human loneliness, yearning, and want. The lens of youth provides a jolting perspective.
Ultimately, Nobody Knows features four children who have essentially been forgotten by the rest of the human world. Surely, their lives are not whole, something vital is missing. If no one acknowledges your existence, do you exist?