(Dare mo shiranai)

Directed by Hirokazu Kore'eda. Japan. 2004.

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Hirokazu Kore'eda's Nobody Knows is a film of deep compassion about four young children abandoned by their mother in a small apartment in Tokyo. Based on a real incident in 1988, the film was written, directed, produced, and edited by Kore'eda whose earlier films, Maborosi and After Life were introspective meditations on life and death. Though his latest film is primarily a coming-of-age film about the transformation of a pre-adolescent boy, no film I've seen in recent memory has filled me with as much sadness for the failure of modern society to provide a coherent set of values for people. While there have been other films about the alienation of big city life, particularly by Tsai Ming-ling (The River, What Time Is it There?) they tend to be cold and impersonal and convey an emotional deadness. Such is not the case here where the children's natural vivacity and warmth make their closeness to each other more real, and ultimately all the more heartbreaking.

The centre of the film is 12-year old Akira who must care for his brothers and sisters when his mother leaves the home. Akira is remarkably portrayed by Yuya Yagira who was named Best Actor for his performance at Cannes in 2004. His strong and compassionate eyes reveal a depth of understanding, rare in an actor that young. Supporting him is his sister ten-year old Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), seven-year old Shigeru (Kimura Hiei), and four-year old Yuki (Shimizu Momoko), all from different fathers. The children's birth was never registered and they do not attend school. They are the ultimate city dwellers, anonymous and alone.

As the film opens, the mother Keiko (Japanese television performer You) moves into a new apartment with Akira. Fearing eviction because of too much noise, the other children are packed in suitcases so the landlord does not find out they are living in the apartment. Since they are all from different fathers and do not attend school, the world does not even know that they exist. Keiko tells the children that they must adhere to strict rules: no loud talking and no going outside the apartment even to the balcony. As the children settle in, one day Akira finds a note from his mother together with some money telling him that she is going away for a while and asks him to look after the family.

Using all natural lighting the film explores the details of the children's ups and downs living by themselves inside a cramped apartment for months. Much of the dialogue is improvised and we are not even aware of the children acting, just living moment by moment. Akira has to buy the groceries, handle the finances, and do all the things that an adult should be doing. "He is the only adult in that family," says Kore'eda. "The mother is much more immature than he is. But he's the adult only because that role has been forced onto him." The only time he is shown being a child is when he plays video games or baseball and has some adventures with some other boys in the neighborhood, but it is fleeting. 

At first playful, then gradually becoming passive and withdrawn, we watch in dismay as the conditions of their lives gradually deteriorate. The lights and water are turned off because of failure to pay the bills and the children have to wash in public fountains and light their rooms by candle. Though normally this would be very depressing, the children convey such feelings of joy, especially when they are finally let out to run around the park that our feelings of hopelessness are temporarily uplifted. Kore'eda said, "children are incredibly resilient, to just label these children's six months alone together as pathetic or tragic, you wouldn't get any closer to understanding either the children or what they experienced." 

Yet there is sadness, and the more difficult life becomes the more we hope that the children will be rescued, though we know that Akira has said that he would not report the situation to any authority for fear of breaking up the family. Nobody Knows has a running time of two hours and twenty-one minutes and requires patience, yet it's total effect is stunning. In the final sequence, the city of Tokyo is shown in silence as if to underscore the emotional disconnection of the modern city where people live in close proximity but nobody knows and nobody cares.


Howard Schumann
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