Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Nobody Knows

Grade : A+ Year : 2005 Director : Hirokazu Kore-eda Running Time : 2hr 21min Genre : ,
Movie review score

One of the best films of 2005 is a film most people will not have heard, but no one who sees it will soon forget. Yes, this haunting, poetic import from Japan has already set a standard for 2005 movies that’s high, probably as high as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” did last year. From acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose work I’ve never seen before now), “Nobody Knows”- which- we are told- was inspired by a true story- tells the story of four children, who, with their mother, live in a Tokyo apartment with little income and with a secret that there are four children (the two youngest were “smuggled” in via suitcases. But the mother is barely around, be it working or drinking. One day, though, she leaves (presumably for a job in Osaka), leaving her four children with some money and the promise she’ll be home for Christmas, which comes and goes without a glimpse or peep from her, while the money runs out, and the oldest son- 12-year old Akira (Yuya Yagira)- is left in charge.

It’s hard to imagine this happening, be it here or anywhere else in the world, but it has. One has to wonder of a special kind of punishment for such horrific child abuse and neglect. We are given scant details of the family’s life before their new apartment, and what we get makes me believe it isn’t the first time the mother- played by Japanese pop star You- has done this to her children, and given that she disappears from the story nerely completely, we sense that this would have been the last. Why must they keep the true size of their family a secret of their landlord? Is there no one else she could have the children with? No one who could have loved and cared for these children the way their mother- who is indisputably more childish than her eldest children, Akira and 10-year old Kyoko (a quietly touching Ayu Kitaura)- is clearly incapable of? Welfare and authority figures are out of the question; they went that way once before, and even Akira (Yagira was completely deserving of Best Actor at Cannes for his mature, intelligent, and emotionally rigerous performance) doesn’t want to see the four of them split up. And the longer and longer we spend with Akira, Kyoko, younger brother Shigeru, and younger sister Yuki, we don’t want to see them split up either. They are all they have. The outside world is oblivious to their plight, except for a teenage girl named Saki (Hanae Kan, sweetly sympathetic) who also is detached from society and her family, and a young man at the local convenience store who helps them when their money runs out.

The story in “Nobody Knows” is a tragedy at its’ core, and spare and simple in its’ details. Not exactly the kind of film you’d expect to run 130 minutes, and remain compelling. But it does. Kore-eda has confidence in not just the story he’s telling to hold the viewer’s attention, but in the audience to stay with the story, and sympathize with these children as their life- whether they all realize it or not- becomes a literal Hell on Earth. The latter is our responsibility; we can either zone out (or walk out), or we can give ourselves over to the film, and share in the feelings of joy and pain in the film. The former, though, is all in Kore-eda’s hands. He did his job well. He gives us a story firmly rooted in the children’s emotional reality, Akira’s in particular, and open to surprises and revelations that don’t feel contrived. It’s a story told through a minimal amount of words, and told mainly through images that convey the children’s emotions and actions. He doesn’t pander; things don’t turn out all cheery at the end, and when the children have rare moments of pleasure (when their even “walking on air” emotionally, if you were), there’s always something that happens that brings them down to reality. You can accuse Kore-eda of punishing these children in their rare moments of happiness, but I’d look at it more as if he’s indicting the unseen mother, and any parent who would put upon their children such misery, which they haven’t done anything to deserve and can’t do anything about…yet. “Nobody Knows” doesn’t have a happy ending; like the work of the Italian neorealists of the 1940s, it’s too honest about the reality of the children’s situation to try and write one. It’s the type of film people don’t seek out nowadays; it tells a story that isn’t affirming of the good in people, and in society. It tells a story that most of us- if not all of us- will never- hopefully- have to experience ourselves. It is a story we need to hear, though, if we hope to change, evolve, and show real compassion. As I said, it’s a movie most people will never hear about. It’s also a movie I’ll likely never forget.

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