2004, PG-13, 140 min. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring Yûya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 8, 2005
Nobody Knows is the rare film that successfully tells its tale of childhood from the children’s point of view. The Japanese director’s film is a gemlike work whose facets gleam and slice through the story with ever-changing glints of understanding and compassion. It’s a story that could have easily become lurid or saccharine or worse – irrelevant – but Kore-eda (Mabarosi, After Life) films this movie in such a realistic and unprying manner that its honesty is always above reproach. The film is inspired by a real event that happened in Japan in 1988 in which a mother of four – ages 4 through 12 – abandoned the children, leaving them to their own devices.
It was a scandal that gripped Japan, but Kore-eda forgoes easy sensationalism or poignancy. He imagines the story from the participants’ point of view. As the movie begins and the family initially moves into a new apartment, the mother (pop star You) tricks the landlords into thinking that there is only one child in residence. Presumably, her ruse is why they needed to change apartments in the first place. We witness the children's lives while their mother stays out until all hours and they are made to play quietly in the apartment and never set a foot outdoors. None of them goes to school. Yet, the children are not necessarily unhappy: They know no other life but this. When she abandons them, leaving behind an envelope of cash, young Akira (Yagira, who amazingly won the best actor award for this role at last year’s Cannes), as the eldest, takes charge. The film follows these four for a year as seasons change and their money runs out and a 12-year-old strives mightily to become a responsible head of the household. Their predicament is sad, although the film is not. Kore-eda captures the irrepressible joys and frivolity of youth, while also showing the benign neglect of the outside world. He lets us experience events as the children might: their attempts to step out onto the porch when told not to, the crayon scribbles on the utility bills, and so on.
The key to the movie lies in the performances of the children, who are all nonprofessionals and thoroughly genuine. Kore-eda achieves real poetry with Nobody Knows. Complicated issues become simple, and tragedy is in the eye of the beholder. The seasons follow one another like stanzas of a poem, building steadily on the imagery that came before and seducing us to continue through the lilt of its expression and the sheer power of its presence.