The story starts off with a young Japanese gal, Keiko (played by pop star You), attempting to rent an apartment in a low income area of Tokyo. With her is her 12 year old son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), a quiet boy that appears respectful and pleasant. Together, they succeed in getting the place, moving in with the assistance of some moving men shortly after hearing the landlord's appreciation that she has no small children. It's not long before the suitcases are unzipped and out pour two young kids with a gal only a little younger than Akira following by train after that (explained to the landlord as a cousin visiting). Right away, you know something is amiss but it takes a few more scenes to completely understand the circumstances of the situation.
Keiko is very young to have this many children and her admonition to them to stay quiet and out of sight so the landlord won't know about them belies the details more than you could imagine. The children have obviously been through this before and agree to the order before mom drifts off into the night for some socializing in order to "have some fun" of her own. While never quite in the open, it's clear that she makes her living as a prostitute or at very least as a gal that uses her feminine charms to entice men into giving her money for her time. She finds a series of never seen (by the viewer at least) boyfriends that drag her off to parts unknown, for increasingly lengthy periods of time. At first, this isn't a big problem since a night or two away is easily covered by Akira, who seems far more mature his age (especially compared to his mother) than he should be but soon enough, she's off for weeks, then months, at a time, leaving precious little money for him to handle the usual bills. As time progresses, the audience gets to see the results of this arrangement, with the children handling it well at first but the despair sets in as mom appears to have left for good part way into the movie. How the matter spirals out of control is the draw of the movie.
Here's what the official website said about the movie: "Four siblings live happily with their mother in a small apartment in Tokyo. The children all have different fathers. They have never been to school. The very existence of three of them has been hidden from the landlord. One day, the mother leaves behind a little money and a note asking her 12-year-old boy to look after his younger siblings. And so begins the children's odyssey, a journey nobody knows.
I had a lot of trouble getting this project off the ground. Fifteen years passed after I wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Would this affair still be an actuality fifteen years later? Before making the film, I had to ask myself that question. According to statistics from Japan's Minister of Education, the number of homeless children between the ages of seven and fourteen dropped from 533 in the year 1987 to 302 in the 2000. But these statistics only refer to children whose births have been declared. If we take into consideration that the birth rate has dropped, we could suppose that today there are more children who are living illegally the way Akira and his brothers and sisters did. I estimate this headline was not an isolated case in Tokyo. It is more of a social problem that concerns us all. The protagonist of the film doesn't just represent the young boy in the 1988 headlines. He is one child among thousands today, which we are not even aware of.
YOU is someone who lives in the present. I understand that she had the positive, happy-go-lucky quality I was looking for to play the role of the mother. She arrived at the shoot without any preparation. She had not read the screenplay I had given her. That could be interpreted both as being relaxed and self-confident. During the shoot, her powers of concentration and her lively spirit often impressed me. She was enormously spontaneous. At the same time, she knew how to bring the children back into the story of the film when they wandered off. So I implicated her into the direction of actors by given her instructions like "You have to make Akira laugh." We can really say that she was like a second director on the set."
I think the style used by the director explains a lot in regards to how the project will impact many of you. More than half the movie is centered in the small apartment itself, with none of the Hollywood tricks used to convey a false sense of openness. The sheer sense of claustrophobia in those scenes is probably designed to impact the viewer far more than the street life Akira starts to fall into and it assists in the more free latter part of the movie when the children start to go outside, primarily to wash at the park but then for fun too.
The movie also uses numerous little things to tell the story, such as the neighborhood kids that initially like Akira, even coming over to the apartment to play videogames, soon abandoning him because it smells so bad there (giving up the relative freedom of the apartment not encumbered by an adult presence as they sense what is going on). Akira's girlfriend, a gal that could easily have been molested or mistreated at home (there were some references to her being an outsider at school too), seemed to be following in his mother's footsteps, singing with businessmen at clubs to pick up spare change; something he is immediately repulsed by and breaks off with her because of. I could go on but discovery is much of the value in such a movie and further spoilers would weaken the appeal of the movie for some of you.
The driving themes of the movie go beyond child cruelty and Akira's need to stay together (apparently, they had been previously separated by the equivalent of Tokyo's Child's Protective Services in the past, only to be reunited with their mother in a world that seemed uncaring to them, wishing they'd vanish without a trace). Even guessing the eventual outcome, I was drawn into the world established by the cast without reserve and found it to be far more dramatic due to recent events in my neck of the world (hurricane victims displaced in mass quantities). Interestingly, the movie had some decent replay value since there was more to see with each viewing (I watched it three times) and the obvious social outcry aspect of the movie (about a society that doesn't want to acknowledge such children) so I rated it as Recommended.
Picture: Nobody Knows was presented in the original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio it was filmed in. It looked very much like a cross between a documentary and a dramatic film, seemingly intentionally, but didn't seem to sentimentalize the usual aspects a domestically made "movie of the week" would do. It looked decent but had some substantial amounts of grain, a bit of video noise, and a number of almost experimental camera angles (from the point of view of a small child to an almost fragmented series of edits that are difficult to explain completely). In general though, I saw no compression artifacts and the look of the movie was very suitable to the subject matter.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese with optional English subtitles. It was reasonably clear with decent separation and a fair amount of dynamic range but the audio was also suitable for the movie's theme in using the lower than average budget to best effect. I was almost surprised that YOU didn't sing the theme song (perhaps she was too upbeat a singer) as I've heard good things about her, but the score was subtle and the vocals clearly recorded.
Extras: The only extras were some trailers.
Final Thoughts: Nobody Knows was indeed a stirring tale of neglect and child abuse but it was also more than that. I'd be misleading you to think I knew enough about Japan's social system and so-called "safety net" to comment intelligently but like most countries of the world, I'm sure that some people fall through the cracks. The story is as much a cautionary tale as anything else and the manner in which it was made added several levels of interest to those who enjoy such movies. In all, I wish there had been a director's commentary (if he speaks English at least) to explain some of the nuances presented in the movie but this tale of four children speaks volumes about kids having kids and how society tries to look the other way if it can. As an alternative to the overly glossy Hollywood dramas dealing with the subject, check this one out on DVD or when it plays on the IFC but give it a look nonetheless.