September 01, 2005

Nobody Knows

Directed Hirokazu Kore-eda

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

From Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain to Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Japanese filmmakers have customarily responded to catastrophic true stories with posttraumatic meditations rather than exploitation or censure. After drawing on the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway system attack for his last feature Distance, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda finds inspiration in yet another real-life tragedy for Nobody Knows. The 1988 ‘Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo’ has all the flummoxing and disconcerting aspects that typify sensational news items. Those siblings—undocumented and each born of a different father—fended for themselves for six months after their mother’s desertion, during which time the youngest one died. Instead of examining the perplexing circumstances and sheer scariness of the ordeal, Kore-eda dwells on the brood’s beyond-their-years wisdom and resourcefulness.

Single mom Keiko Fukushima (You) and twelve-year-old Akira (Yûya Yagira, Cannes’s Best Actor) arrive at a small Tokyo apartment after arduously lugging heavy suitcases up the stairs. Once Keiko and Akira send the movers off, seven-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and five-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) gleefully pop out of the luggage. Shortly thereafter, ten-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) tiptoes in upon arrival from the train station. As if about to play an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the landlord and neighbors, Keiko explains the rules: no loud voices or going outside. Kyoko does laundry on the veranda discreetly; Akira takes charge when mother is not around. Mom entreats the weary Akira to hang in there a bit longer, assuring him that they will soon move into a big house with the kids finally attending school and Kyoko getting a piano to replace her miniature toy one. Keiko vanishes before long, leaving behind only a goodbye note and an envelope full of yen. Months go by and clutter accumulates in the cramped abode, while her rules are also gradually broken. Her offspring’s predicament becomes even more serious once they’ve depleted the money. Akira eventually tracks down Keiko’s new telephone number, but when she answers with a different surname, it dawns on him that she might never return.

In a preemptive disclaimer during the opening frames, Kore-eda acknowledges that the characters and events depicted are fictional. “The first important decision was that we didn't want to portray the children as weak victims, or the mother as an easily identifiable villain,” he said in an interview with The Philadelphia City Paper. “Those were the precise points of view of the TV news and magazines, so I wanted explicitly to avoid them.” But to grasp what he personally gleans from the actual incident and thus analyze the film’s thesis, it’s impossible to overlook his self-assumed artistic license to tamper with facts. He sticks close to minutiae, but neglects much of the brutality. In truth, a son succumbed to malnutrition even prior to the mother’s departure; she sealed his corpse with plastic wrap and stashed it in a closet with deodorant. This disturbing episode is glaringly unaccounted for in the film. And in actuality, the youngest child died from injuries inflicted by her brother’s friends. Yuki’s demise here is purely accidental. With these frightening details swept under the tatami, the film seems a lot less unsettling than it might otherwise have been.

If his previous features are any indication, other subject matter clearly fascinates Kore-eda more. Indeed, bereavement and refuge are the thematic hallmarks of his work to date. In Maborosi, a grieving widow and her young son adapt to a new life in a cozy seaside nest. After Life finds recently deceased characters reliving cherished memories during their stay in purgatory. Distance has survivors gathering to mourn their loved ones who took part in a terrorist suicide mission. These characters all cope with personal loss in idealized close-knit utopian communities. Only bold aesthetic divergences—such as the absence of close-ups in Maborosi and the absence of music in Distance—set these films apart from one another. The premise of Nobody Knows certainly provides ample opportunity for the director to revisit his favorite subjects and once more project his idyllic worldview. “The life of these children couldn’t have been only negative,” he stated in the film’s press notes. “There must have been a richness other than material, based on those moments of understanding, joy, sadness and hope. So I didn’t want to show the ‘hell’ as seen from the outside, but the ‘richness’ of their life as seen from the inside.”

Kore-eda speculatively reimagines people and occurrences through rose-colored glasses, particularly lingering on Akira’s maturity, cultivated by necessity. The boy already faces a myriad of daily run-of-the-mill grownup decisions prior to his mother’s exit, such as whether to buy persimmons while shopping and whether to cook curry for dinner. Once she vanishes, he dutifully deposits money at the ATM, pays bills, does bookkeeping, and makes up white lies about her to comfort his siblings. When the money runs out, he hunts down two of her ex-boyfriends and separately claims that each is Yuki’s biological father so he can extort some cash. A few vignettes of Akira’s worldliness are especially heartrending: shivering in the street waiting for last-minute markdowns before finally procuring a traditional Christmas treat, asking a convenience store clerk to forge Keiko’s handwriting on New Year’s greetings for his siblings, and taking little Yuki out on her birthday to look for mommy.

Occasionally, Kore-eda skirts the ugly truths only to quickly discard those tangents and regress to his familiar schema. The film features Akira’s buddies who prove to be a very bad influence, even though they aren’t responsible for any fatalities here as were their real-life counterparts. Akira uncharacteristically squanders precious money on junk food and video games to impress them. They also rough up Shigeru and attempt to coax Akira into shoplifting. But when he refuses to steal for fear that the involvement of cops and social workers will spell separation for the remainder of his family, those fair-weather friendships immediately dissolve with the director resuming his admiration for the boy’s prudence. Never mind that simply tackling the harshness of the actual events would have made more sense.

In films such as Lord of the Flies, Kids, Mean Creek and even Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, savagery naturally emerges in children deprived of adult supervision and role models. The youngsters in those films have no moral or behavioral compass to help guide them, and their microcosms only permit survival of the fittest. As the stark contrast between Nobody Knows and its factual basis would indicate, Kore-eda’s romantic notion of Akira’s sagacity and accountability defies logic. The film’s likely audience of middle-aged art-house patrons probably won’t question its heartwarming portrait though. What parent doesn’t find obedient, well-behaved cherubs adorable? Halfway through, the film digresses even further from veracity as saintly middle-school outcast Saki (Hanae Kan) assumes the multipurpose role of surrogate mother for the little Fukushimas as well as puppy-love interest for Akira. She patiently engages Kyoko and Yuki during afternoon playtime. The prepubescent Akira also starts washing his hair and spending time picking out the right outfit before meeting Saki. When she volunteers to raise money for them by entertaining a middle-aged men at a karaoke club, her sacrificial gesture crushes Akira even more than did his mother’s abandonment.

The film doesn’t condemn the grownups, even though they do appear to be neglectful, indifferent, self-absorbed and mostly absent. Its treatment of the fathers is almost neutral, with Keiko resenting their absconding and at the same time betraying her own naiveté about relationships. Her old flames whom Akira visits aren’t exactly in positions to provide much assistance, since they toil at dead-end jobs as a cab driver and a pachinko parlor security guard. And unlike the real mother, who left her late son to rot in the closet, Keiko seems a lot less callous. She may deprive her children of the ordinary upbringing they crave, but she justifies her selfishness with pacifying promises of normalcy once she scores a husband. Akira even catches her shedding a tear before getting out of bed one morning. The director’s generally sympathetic presentation of her makes one wonder if it’s purposeful or simply an oversight that she doesn’t leave the children her cellular number in case of emergency. It’s equally mind-boggling to see the landlord’s wife giving up so easily after failing to collect the overdue rent, when in reality it was the landlord who finally notified the police.

With deliberate pace and generous use of close-ups, hand-held cinematography and diegetic sound, Kore-eda transcends the detached ambiance of his past work. The stylistic touches here coalesce to poetic effect, cultivating several mini set-pieces from mundane chores and pastimes such as eating ramen, chopping up onions, brushing teeth, monitoring the laundry, fiddling with crayons, surveying each aisle in the store, streaking fingertips on a fogged window, and planting makeshift bonsais in Styrofoam noodle cups. By contrasting the motif of their often-traversed flight of stairs with motifs of bicycles, monorail trains, and airplanes, the film remarkably illustrates the brood’s displacement and disenfranchisement amid basic needs that are unmet, including food, school, leisure diversions, and social mobility.

But its fly-on-the-wall approach and the child actors’ wooden performances hinder the film’s emotional impact. A few intriguing undercurrents—such as Kyoko’s self-blame and anger regarding mom’s forsaking them, Akira’s annoyance with his siblings, and the foreshadowing of the culminating tragedy—barely even register. The climactic scenes juxtapose Akira’s little-league baseball triumphs with Yuki’s untimely passing, and the latter almost comes off as an afterthought. Kore-eda tastefully leaves the chilling details off screen, allowing only fleeting glances at Yuki’s frozen limbs; and the ensuing scenes are totally devoid of the devastating impression one would expect. Nobody Knows doesn’t resolve anything, except to reiterate, ultimately, that the kids are alright.

© Copyright 2005 Cineaste. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.