"Dear Akira, your mothers going away for a little while. Please look after Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki."
Inspired by a true story, Nobody Knows (2004) is a heartbreaking tale of abandonment. From a humanistic perpective,
director Hirokazu Koreeda tells the story of the four Fukushima siblings. As 12 year old Akira and his mother unpack the suitcases in their new apartment, his three siblings (younger sister Kyoko, younger brother Kyoko Shigeru, and baby of the family, 4-5 yrs old, sister Yuki) emerge from the bags. They were hidden from the landlord who wouldn't want to rent a three room apartment to a single mother with four children by different fathers. And, for the children, it doesn't seem like anything strange to live this way, which is confirmed later that night when they go over the family rules- no one goes outside except for Akira, no noise, and no school.
When their mother leaves, she doesn't say when she will be back. It could be later that night with booze on her breath or it could be for days, returning with presents in hand and explanations that she was away working. But, this is the only life they know. They fear adults discovering their situation and splitting them apart. So, Shigeru dares not even tiptoe onto the balcony, and Akira wouldn't dream of shoplifting like his peers. They all worry a bit more when she is gone for an entire month, the cash dwindles, and Akira must make due.
She returns, but is quickly gone again, with nothing but a simple note and some cash left in her wake. Akira does the best he can, but slowly comes to the realization that she probably wont be back. He tries to hide his feelings and the sad state of things but his facade can't last long. Even with his limited schooling, Akira knows they will be out of money. Though without easy means to get food or have power and water, they will suffer through. He does make some friends, (tries) with a group of kids his age, a loner girl, and a convenience store worker. But, he and his siblings are like a never openly acknowledged neighborhood secret- the boy who is always shopping alone, the apartment that smells, and eventually, the children with the dirty clothes filling buckets and bottles with water from the public faucet.
When Akira first decides that they should all go out, there is a beautiful scene where all of the children go outdoors. After months of captivity, they put on their shoes and run down the steps out into the open sunlight. They play in the park. They marvel at the items inside the small convenience mart. You cannot help but get a little choked up that the deprived trio finally have some simple freedom and Akira is proud to give it to them. But as the film progresses, the children continue to go outside, their hair gets longer and unkempt, their clothes become tatters, and dirt smudges their faces. And, it sinks in- the outside world is really not so great because, it seems no one notices or does anything about the abandoned Fukishima children. Wether locked away or out in the sunlight, they largely get a blind eye. And, it can only end in tragedy.
The first film I saw by Hirokazu Koreeda was After Life. I watched it in the theater one snowy winter afternoon, fitting because it was an understated tale of a wintery purgatory where the recently deceased choose one memory to be recreated and filmed before they movie on. His last film Distance, about the surviving members of a cult reuniting, increased the casual nature I saw in After Life, and it wasn't a surprise when I later found out he kept things surprising on the film by only giving the actors their characters lines which leant to more realistic reactions. Filmed consecutively over the course of a little over a year with the children aging as the film progresses, Nobody Knows takes this almost documentary approach one step further. Though pre-composed and fictional, it is done with a manner that is very relaxed and appears unobtrusive. Only one bit at the end with some sappy pop song underscoring has that manipulated conventional drama feel.
The pseudo-documentary approach is just a different tool of dramatic manipulation, and, as he has become more adept at this style, Hirokazu Koreeda has only gotten better. After Life's otherworldly, fanciful subject matter juxtaposed with its effortless, lifelike rhythms. Whereas, Distance suffered somewhat from pacing issues and meandered a little as it tried to unfold organically. But, Nobody Knows hits the right notes with its steady pacing that reflects the monotony the children face as the days go by with their means dwindling and hope of their mothers return fading. Though, make no mistake, it isn't a bummer for two and half hours. They are children, and though their circumstance is tragic, kids are malleable and accept the world they are given. So, there is plenty of fun, family, and warmth, just with underlying sense that we wish a better world was there for them. And, yeah, it had me tearing up at the end.
The children are all great. With the youngest (Shigeru is a spaz and Yuki is the cutest damn thing ever), you largely get the sense the camera could just be turned on them to film their reactions. The first time actor playing Akira won the best actor award at Cannes, and he does manage a convincing job as a child saddled with weighty adult responsibility who still has the pangs of being a kid. He reminded me of a childhood friend of mine whose mother had him run errands to the bank and grocery store, solo, at only six years old. While he still took part in the same old fun and games, he had this gravity about him the rest of us lacked because we were still being kept in eyesight of our parents while he could manage on his own. But, perhaps Hirokazu Koreeda's most inspired casting choice was in pop star/personality You as the mother. With her high voice and kidlike manner, the mother becomes not so much a callous monster as the family's fifth immature child, someone lacking the capacity and the selflessness to be a mother. When her disappearances are questioned, her genuinely shocked reply is, "Whats this? I'm not allowed to be happy?" I don't think I've ever wanted to slap a screen character more.
The DVD: Region 2, Japanese version
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. So far, every film I've seen by Koreeda had very heavy grain, so it appears to be a stylistic choice and he doesn't mind pushing the exposure and letting a little roughness show through. Plus, with its loose, though well composed, approach, the documentarylike nature of the image is fitting. So, there is some natural roughness, though the DVD appears to do a good job with the elements that are grainier and softer than ususal. Technically the print appears sound and I didnt notice any glaring artifacts.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1. Again, the sound elements, be it dialogue or atmospherics, come across as very natural. The presentation is simple but effective. The whimsical score is very strong. An excellent subtitle translation offers everything from the nuance of improper kid grammar to text translations.
Extras: Well, first, you get some beautiful packaging. From the country most likely to sell Raisinets with every chocolate raisin individually wrapped in delicate paper, you get a great SLIPCASE cover and foldout dvd case adorned with photos of the main children. Inside that, you get a BOOKLET with director's notes (in Japanese) and collectors POSTCARDS. A second disc contains the following extras: MAKING OF " " FEATURETTE (33:03). Unfortunately this is in Japanese with no subs. MUSIC VIDEO. Hey, it's the girl that played the convenience store worker, and she sings. TRAILER. CAST BIO/FILMOGRAPHIES. Finally, a nice PHOTO GALLERY, consisting of a few different sections of behind the scenes snapshots.
Conclusion: A sweet but sad tale. Hirokazu Koreeda's Nobody Knows is a brilliant, involving heartbreaker, and he, like Ozu, is a film maker with a compassionate eye. You cannot bear to imagine it and wish it weren't true, but Nobody knows has roots in reality. This import is a pleasing but expensive package, worthwhile for those with more persnickety tastes.