A compelling portrait of the world of abandoned children
"Nobody Knows" is painful to watch. It's a story you won't shake off,depicting the most defenseless of humans -- four young children, theoldest only twelve -- trapped in growing poverty and abandonment. It'sa process-narrative of devolution that makes you feel helpless andangry and sad. It's saved from mawkishness by the natural energy of thechildren playing the roles of the four kids. And if it survives, itsnot because of its treatment of a social issue so much as for itsevocation of the precise details of childhood.
There are two main subjects here. One is criminal neglect: the story isloosely based on events that happened in Tokyo in 1988. The other isthe private, often secret, lives of children. Koreeda began as adocumentary filmmaker and this seems to have given him exceptionalskill in working with people and capturing their natural reactions. Thewinning, tragic children in "Nobody Knows," four half-siblings withdifferent fathers and the same childish, selfish mother, never seem tobe acting and often no doubt aren't. Nonetheless the subtlety ofexpression in the delicate, mobile, beautiful face of the older boy,young Yûya Yagira, was such that it won him the Best Actor award atCannes last year.
Also important is Koreeda's gift for detail, his meditativeexaminations of fingernails, feet, a toy piano, video games, pieces ofpaper, objects strewn around a room, the hundreds of little soft drinkbottles that are everywhere in Japan, plants, dirt, all the smallthings children see because they're closer to the ground. And thethings they accept because they're defenseless and innocent, but alsoincredibly adaptable.
Akira, who's only ten and whose voice changed during year spent makingthe movie, is in charge. As their mother's absences become lengthierand the children finally seem to be abandoned for good, money runs out.Akira is captain of a sinking ship, a somber duty, but he and hislittle sisters and brother keep finding time to laugh and play.
Koreeda's a passionately serious filmmaker: the two better known of hisearlier fiction films deal with death and loss and here he considers asa given the worst of human carelessness and indifference both bysociety and the individual. "Maborosi" (1995) was a homage to Ozu butwithout Ozu's sense of social connectedness; it begins with an isolatedcouple in the city and chronicles a young widow's second marriage inthe country through a slow pastiche of observed daily scenes whereevent and even dialogue are minimal concerns. The content of "Maborosi"is too thin, but the images and color are exquisite and the sequencesof natural, unrehearsed-looking scenes achieve an impressively rich,beautiful, zen-like calm. "After Life" (1998) uses actual recollectionsof older people talking to the camera to build up a fantasy about deadsouls held temporarily in a bureaucratic pre-Heaven limbo being askedto choose a single favorite memory to take with them into eternity: theeffect is perplexing, thought-provoking, charming, and with greateconomy of means, cinematic.
"Nobody Knows" isn't as brilliant or resolved as "After Life" or asexquisitely visual as "Maborosi," but for all its rambling excessivelength it delivers a quantity of undigested patient misery and joy thatwill evoke such noble antecedents from the classic world of cinematichumanism as Clément's "Forbidden Games," De Sica's "Bicycle Thief," andthe homeless father and son living on garbage in Kurosawa'sDo-des-ka-den.
What's new here though is a sense of the encompassing otherness of bigmodern cities and the stoicism and resiliency of childhood (and perhapsalso of the Japanese personality). Keiko, the childish, weak, spoiledmother (played effectively -- we instantly hate her -- by You, who'ssome sort of pop star in Japan), sneaks three of her four children intothe new apartment and tells them they can't go out, can't showthemselves even on the balcony. (In the real event, this was largelybecause they were illegitimate and had no papers, but here theexplanation is that their noise may get them evicted.) Only Akira canleave, and she won't let him or the others go to school. They'reprisoners of their urban anonymity and of an impersonal contemporarysociety.
As in Andrew Berkin's "Cement Garden," the children also pretendeverything's okay to escape the cruelty of the social welfare system.We watch agonizingly -- and many writers say the movie's somewhat toolong; it does feel thus especially during the first hour -- but thistime Koreeda's world is more direct and specific than before andthere's plenty of talk. The children chatter among themselves.Eventually they go out and mix a bit by day with other children. Akiraeven talks to himself; he has to, because there's no adult coaching himso he must impersonate an elder adviser.
Whatever its roughness and excess, "Nobody Knows" is intense andpowerful film-making. Koreeda has put his whole heart and soul intothis movie and with it achieves an experience you can't shrug off. Norwill you forget the kids, especially the beautiful boy, Yûya Yagira,who may be growing inch by inch into a star even as we speak.