Nobody Knows (2004): Japanese Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Award-Winning Film

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is Japan’s submission for this year’s Foreign-Language Oscar, and the winner of the Best Actor prize (for its 14-year-old-star Yuya Yagira) at the 2004 Cannes Festival, where it world-premiered.

The film is based on a true incident, which occurred in Nishi-Sugamo in 1988, when a quartet of kids, all of different fathers and never registered at birth, were abandoned by their mother, thus forcing them to fend for themselves for six months. Using only the basic facts, Nobody Knows spins a story that constructs two parallel universes: A realistic world of everyday activities, set apart from a more subjective world of fantasy and imagination.

Keiko Fukushima (played by TV personality You) moves into a small apartment. She introduces her 12-year-old son Akira (Yuya Yagira) to the landlord, but fails to mention any of her three other children. Kore-eda is not interested in a socio-realistic portrait of abandoned kids left to their own devices. Hence, some crucial details, that would have concerned most other Western directors while making the picture, are notably missing as, for example, what does Keiko do for living Or who are the fathers of the four unregistered children

Basically an enigma, Keiko appears to be a romantic, confused, and irresponsible woman. Indeed, she surprises her own kids one day when, out of the blue, she declares she’s in love again. At first, the routine family life seems uninterrupted. Daughter Kykoko (Ayu Kitaura), 10, oversees the household’s responsibilities; Akira spends mot of his time on his own studying; and Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), 7, plays around with the youngest sibling, Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), 4.

The story calls for an intimate portrait of life inside a tiny flat, a challenge that is met by the use of a handheld camera that captures the most routine activities. After a rather long static opening chapter, things begin to move literally and figuratively. Keiko departs leaving behind her a vague note that charges the eldest child Akira with looking after his siblings. The cash left in an envelope is used by Akira to meet his siblings’ needs and maintain as orderly life as possible.

A month later, mom returns, showering her kids with presents but no apologies or explanations for her absence. Shortly after, however, Keiko leaves again, this time for good. The tale’s time frame is indicated by the changes of seasons, from fall to winter to spring to summer. During that time, Akira acts as a “responsible father,” though he has to contend with dwindling money (which mom occasionally sends), and the imminent threat that the landlord would find out about the family’s very existence.

The movie’s first half is done in a realistic manner, trying to convey routine life in what’s a situation of major crisis. Rather admirably, Akira goes out of his way to maintain order and cleanliness. Rambling and repetitious in its first hour, the overlong film (140 minutes) changes in tempo and mood in the second half, which shows how order breaks down and the various tragedies faced by the kids.

The subtle changes from realism to something more magical and mysterious has described each of Kore-eda’s former films, which include Maborosi, winner of the Golden Osella at the 1995 Venice Festival, and 1999’s After Life, which is currently being adapted into an American film by Fox. His third and weakest film to date, Distance, was presented in competition at the 2001 Cannes Festival.

It may be a reflection of Japanese culture and of Kore-eda’s sensibility in particular, but there are no overt bursts of feelings, or emotional confrontations and hysterical crises. One can only imagine how a Western director (American or European) would approach the same narrative.

For a while, all four kids maintain optimistic view that their mother will return. However, when Akira realizes that this might not happen, he assumes the responsibilities of a young man, all along going through painful adolescence himself. At heart a normal kid, he yearns for a father figure in his life but has to contend with an absent mother as well; a nice vignette involving the school coach captures those yearnings.

Akira, who was cited by the jury for his performance, holds the entire picture on his shoulders. Unable to go to school, he tries to socialize with kids his own age, and in due course develops a crush on a rather mysterious girl, Saki (Hanae Kan), who belongs to a higher social class.

Throughout the story, Kore-eda maintains a consistent POV: Almost every event is shown from Akira’s subjective perspective. In a press conference in Cannes, Kore-eda said, “It was a shocking event, but I didn’t want to show it from a journalistic point of view. I wanted to show it from the inside, to show what the children were going through.” To ensure spontaneity, he didn’t show his young actors a script. Instead, he explained to them what was supposed to happen in any given scene.

Though mostly set within the confined space of tiny apartment, overall, the film is not static or claustrophobic. As the children are increasingly thrown to their own devices, their subjective universes expand, and the narrative takes most welcome trips into the outside world as well as into the children’s imaginative milieus.

Nobody Knows increasingly becomes sharper in focus and even more compelling visually. What lends the film a good measure of authenticity is the fact that it was shot over a period of one year, a luxury few filmmakers can afford. As a result, the film’s visuals capture not only the subtle changes in seasons but also the subtle changes in the children’s inner worlds and innermost feelings.

Nobody Knows resonates as one long and unexpected odyssey, taken by children whose journey nobody knows. Though engulfed by the cruel fate of abandonment, the four children do their best to survive in their own little world, devising and then following their own set of rules. When they are forced to engage with the world outside their cocooned universe, the fragile balance that has sustained them collapses. The film is a frank chronicle of children’s innocent and universal longing for their mother, their wary fascination toward the outside world, their anxiety over their increasingly desperate situation, their inarticulate cries, their kindness to each other, and their determination to survive on wits and courage.

Rejecting the socio-realistic approach that most directors would have given this kind of narrative, Kore-eda chronicles the inner spiritual and emotional lives of children with subtlety, sensitivity, and great attention to minutia detail. Nobody Knows is a coming-of-age tale of an adolescent who prematurely becomes a father figure. As a poem to children’s resilience and resourcefulness, Nobody Knows is a film that the late Francois Truffaut, a master filmmaker of children’s films, would have been proud of.