Kore-Eda Hirokazu, 2004, Japan , 141 min, subtitles
Yagira Yuuya, Kitaura Ayu, Kimura Hiei, Shimizu Momoko, Kan Hanae, You
In 1988, four Japanese children aged 14 and under (including two girls aged three and two) were left to live on their own by their mother, who had in turn been abandoned by her husband and father to her first child a few years before. The children, born of different fathers, had no official existence and none of them had ever been to school. The mother, now living with another man, kept only intermittent contact with her eldest son, left in charge of his younger siblings, and it would be six months before the authorities found out about the children's situation.
This real-life story provides the basis for the harrowing Nobody Knows, Kore-Eda Hirokazu's fourth feature after Distance. Fourteen-year-old Yagira Yuuya won the Best Actor Award at the 2004 Cannes Festival for his role as 12-year-old Akira, the older brother turned head of the household.
Nobody Knows begins as a relatively ordinary tale of a single mother who struggles to support her children, three of whom lead an existence completely hidden from the rest of the world, including their landlord and neighbours. The story gets darker when we find out that the woman is in the habit of leaving the children on their own for weeks in order to be with the men she meets, as she's afraid that they will leave her if they find out about her children. The children's feelings of disappointment and anger don't stop their mother from taking off again and again, until one day she doesn't come back and all the children's efforts to trace her fail. Young Akira is left with the responsibility to look after the family, but as money runs short and time passes with no news from their mother, the already fragile balance of the children's life begins to crumble.
Tracking in minute detail the children's long slide towards heartbreaking squalor, Nobody Knows is an excruciating watch and still relatively mild in comparison with the real story. What's so remarkable about writer/director Kore-Eda Hirokazu's take on the story is his determination to stay well clear of snap moral judgments and present the characters' predicament in all its complexity. In order to do this the characters' motivations are explored with infinite empathy and attention to detail, which leads to a rich variety of riveting, often unexpected angles that steer the plot in new directions. After touching on the mother's own conflicts, the film moves on to the nuances of the children's troubled relationship with the outside world once they are left on their own, their craving not just for food and safety, but also for freedom, self-respect and a social life. Even as their situation becomes more and more desperate, the characters have to deal on a daily basis with the full range of their often contradictory needs and feelings. It is to the credit of Kore-Eda Hirokazu that the film sticks to a natural, understated tone and, dark as the basic premise already is, the drama of the situation is never overplayed. In fact one of the director's stated goals was to show that not all was gloom and hopelessness in the characters' stories, and there were moments when the mother did find ways to care for her children, and when they themselves did manage to put a smile on each other's face and make each other's life a little more bearable.
The film's photography shows the same thoughtfulness and attention to detail as the rest of the production. From the first shot of Akira riding a night train with the lights of Tokyo far away in the background, the camera makes the forcedly minimalistic world of the story look fresh again and again. The work Kore-Eda Hirokazu did with the actors for a year leads to flawlessly natural performances. Yagira Yuuya as Akira, whom we get to see in the broadest range of situations, is particularly impressive. The hard look of desperation in his eyes towards the end of the film, as the family go through their direst times, is difficult to forget.
Introducing the film at the London Film Festival this year along with Yuya Yagira, Kore-eda said he didn't want to reproduce the real life accounts and had not actually met any of the children involved in the true event but was moved by the visuals of the suitcases in which the mother hides the younger children in when renting a new apartment and was inspired to use this image as the baseline of the film.
The director's gentle pace and his very thoroughness brings Nobody Knows to well over two hours in length. A long, tough watch, but also a first-rate piece of storytelling.