Robin CliffordKeiko (You of the musical group Fairchild in her screen debut) is a single woman living in Tokyo with four children of different fathers. Having lost one apartment due to her younger son's tantrums, Keiko's learned to cover her tracks, presenting her newest landlord with twelve year old Akira (Yûya Yagira, Best Actor winner at 2004's Cannes) while smuggling in the rest of her children, whom she instructs to stay indoors at all times. When Keiko travels to another city, trailing yet another man she hopes will marry her, she leaves Akira with some money and the responsibility for his siblings. When the kids run into trouble, "Nobody Knows."
Inspired by a true case from 1988, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda ("After Life") conjectures that four children could not have survived for six months on their own had their experience been abusive. His masterfully told tale of childhood and its loss is profoundly moving and bittersweet.
The Fukushimas appear to be a happy bunch. Mom is engaged with her kids, home schooling them and playing games, but she also seems to be too much one of them rather than the authority figure (You's kewpie doll of a voice compounds this impression). When mom first tells Akira she's 'going away for a little while,' it is clear that he has learned responsible habits. He deposits the money she has left him and begins calculating sums for rent and utilities. He also knows how to provide a father-figure's warmth. When Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the youngest at five, demands Apollo Chocos, Akira searches the marketplace until he can bring his sister the treat. Keiko's limitations as a mother really begin to pile up upon her return. She deflects second eldest Kyoko's (Ayu Kitaura) desire to go to school with empty arguments and awakens her family in the wee hours when she comes home drunk bearing a gift of sushi. When Akira tells her he had to visit one of her exes to get additional money, Keiko clucks at the small amount, wondering why the man didn't recognize 'children in trouble.' Clearly there is an immaturity issue here, a desire for a man, even her own son, to take charge of a tenuous situation.
Keiko's absences become more pronounced and the children's fate grows worse. Utilities are cut and Akira is reduced to begging for expired food from the market he used to patronize. Yuki's birthday was celebrated with a trip out of doors, but now the whole family must go to the park in order to wash. They meet a bullied schoolgirl, Saki (Hanae Kan), there, but when she tries to raise some money for them by going off with a businessman ('I only sang karaoke with him!'), Akira rejects her, perhaps sensing his mother's destructive spirit. It takes a tragedy to bring her back into the fold and the film's final shot is of this re-formed family.
Hirokazu paces his film very deliberately, small moments all building up to larger meaning. The early goings are light, childish adventure. Akira seems to almost enjoy his head of household status, even inviting friends over to play videos (these boys later reject him when conditions deteriorate). The two youngest, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki, don't even seem to realize anything is amiss. The sunny bliss takes a downturn along with the weather as Christmas approaches and Keiko does not return as promised. One of Hirokazu's most poignant scenes is a Christmas Eve cross-cutting of Akira waiting in the snow while across the street, the market cashier (Takoko Take) reduces Christmas merchandise on the sidewalk. It's a 'little match girl' moment. The earlier joys of childhood - a found ball, a box of crayons used to the nib, an ant - turn into a numbed boredom in the stagnant apartment.
Seventy percent of the 141 minute film take place inside of that tiny, cramped apartment and it is a testament to Hirokazu's skill that the environment never becomes boring or claustrophobic. Using mostly static shots (cinematography by Yutaka Yamasaki, "After Life"), this home and its inhabitants are defined by close-ups - nail polish spilled on a wooden floor, a hand against a quilt, the room reflected in a tea kettle, dirty feet amidst plants on the balcony, a glass kitchen cabinet in center frame crowding Akira to the left - all of which seem to be showing us something new to be examined. The border created by sliding doors has the weight of an unscalable wall, the balcony beyond's two foot width like another land. Seemingly insignificant details, such as the slow cashier being taught how to bag, are really introducing new elements into the story. She becomes the only adult privy to Akira's predicament, but respects his decision to avoid child services in order to keep his family together. (Saki cannot report the situation without revealing her truancy.)
The director achieves wonderfully natural performances from his mostly inexperienced cast. The exchange of a single look between Akira and Kyoko crackles with tension and unspoken rebuke while the two younger children embody blissful innocence and trust. Akira's late, greatest moment of joy, when he is invited to fill in the vacant spot for a school baseball game, is a heartbreaking montage exemplifying everything that has been taken away from him. The film is simply scored with a beautifully melodic single guitar track. The film's only, tiny misstep is the use of a ballad over the film's penultimate scene.
"Nobody Knows" is an eye-opening example of anonymous neglect and Hirokazu makes it all the more moving for its myriad moments of love, warmth and wonder.
Keiko (pop star, You) and her 12-year old son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), start a new life as they move into a nice apartment for two. But, unbeknownst to their landlords, there are three more members to the family – eldest sister, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), noisy younger brother, Shigeru (Hiai Kimura), and little 5-year old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) – and mom lays down the rules to the secret three: no noise (especially Shigeru) and no going out side. Then, she suddenly leaves them all with a note and some cash saying she’s going away for a while. Suddenly, Akira becomes the man of the young family in “Nobody Knows.”
Writer-director Hirokazu Kor-Eda bases his little tale on coming of age on a tragically true story about an unwed Japanese woman who gave birth to five children by different fathers. She never registered their births, making them persona non grata in Japan society. She abandoned the kids to fend for themselves, raised by her eldest boy. While this tragic tale is the basis for the helmer’s rendition, he weaves a gentle, melancholy tapestry that spans seasons as it focuses, primarily, on Akira as the young patriarch.
2004 Cannes Best Actor winner Yuya Yagira plays Akira as a normal little boy with simple desires – have fun and be a kid. But, his emotionally underdeveloped mother is not all that much more mature than her 12-year old son and she comes and goes on a whim, counting on Akira to hold down the fort for undetermined amounts of time. The boy takes his responsibility seriously, budgets the meager amount of money Keiko left them and tries his best to protect his siblings. And, he can’t go to child welfare for help as the authorities would break up the little family.
The slow, lyrical telling of Akira’s coming of age carries a sad, hopeless element as the boy must face responsibilities that a kid should not have to face – even a mature adult shouldn’t have to face what Akira must to keep his family together. Despite the adversities and obstacles the kids must cope with, there is always a sense of love and unity, even as conditions worsen. This love represents the positive element of “Nobody Knows,” even as the utilities get cut for lack of payment and they must get their water from a local park.
The kids do a fine job, especially Yagira as Akira. The others fill in their personas as you get to know them all. Japanese pop star You, as their irresponsible mother, is annoying in her selfishness, me-me-me ways but this is exactly how the character should be – emotionally immature and self centered.
The film runs for about 138 minutes but it is time well spent. The winter months are a time when what we see at theaters is sub par and mere fodder. “Nobody Knows” is an unexpected treat, a solidly crafted, emotionally stirring slice of life that doesn’t give in to a happily ever after ending that Hollywood would crank out. Instead, it is what it is and well worth the effort. I give it an A-.
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