Dir/scr: Kore-edaHirokazu. Japan. 2004. 141mins.
A nightmare scenario ofparental neglect is rendered as a plaintive neo-realist ode to childhood inthis long-gestating project from writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu. Inspired bya true event from the late 1980s, NobodyKnows offers a closely-observed portrait of four youngsters seeking tomaintain some semblance of normality after their mother has abandoned them.
Graced with some lyrical andpoignant moments, it is hampered by an excessive running-time for such slendermaterial and an open-ended conclusion that merely adds to the film's vaguelylethargic feel.
This is clearly not a filmwith mass-market appeal, although further festival exposure will ensue,especially after Yagira Yuya won BestActor at Cannes. Kore-eda's modest arthouse following will respond in thoseterritories where his three previous features have left an impression. On thebasis of reactions to the initial Cannes press screening, critical support islikely to be muted rather than effusive.
Originally conceived andwritten as a first draft 15 years ago, NobodyKnows is an attempt to step back from the snap judgments and sensationalistheadlines that would inevitably follow such a case. Instead, it invites theviewer to observe the experience from the inside and gain a sense of what itwas like for those who lived through it.
The story begins when Keiko(You) moves to a new apartment in Tokyo. An unmarried mother with four childrenby four different fathers, she only divulges the presence of her 12-year-oldson Akira (Yagira) to the new landlord. The other three children are smuggledinto the apartment in suitcases and given strict ground rules that include noexcessive noise and no stepping outside.
Akira shops, cooks andcleans and the other children seem content to inhabit a world defined by thefour walls that surround them. Then Keiko leaves a note saying she will be gonefor a while and that she is relying on Akira to look after the others. It isthe first of several absences that eventually lead to her disappearance fromtheir lives. Keiko is now burdened with the responsibility for their future.
Nobody Knowsis a film built on impressions and observations rather than the great forwardmomentum of narrative. Its strength lies in the accuracy and truth of thoseobservations - we gain a sense of inner turmoil through a tapping foot, aclenched fist, a swallowed lump in the throat or a silent tear. The music tugsat the heart-strings but the film is not overly sentimental - everything isthere without being spelt out. "When will you let us go to school," asks onechild, underlying a yearning for the things others take for granted.
The film also carries anevocative sense of a city where people are swallowed up by anonymity - nobodyknows what is happening to their neighbour or even people they see every day.Adults fail to intervene, the children show a remarkable lack of curiosityabout the outside world and, even when the rent goes unpaid and they are leftwithout electricity or water, they still fail to register on the radar ofanyone's concern. The film's considerable running time perhaps allows too longto ponder on such mundane matters.
Just in the way hischaracter takes responsibility for his siblings, Yagira Yuya is asked to carry thefilm. His ease in front of the camera is a gift and his eyes express much ofthe character's anxiety, growing despair and stoicism. Ultimately, as he walksthe streets of Tokyo, Akira is a touching a figure as Jackie Coogan's
You makes an equally strongimpression in her few scenes as the mother, almost creating a sympatheticpresence out of a woman whose spectacular irresponsibility puts four younglives at such risk. The remaining children create a believable sense of familyand the improvised nature of many of the scenes in the apartment creates thekind of stolen moments that will make an audience sigh with affection.
There are quiet, tellingimages of beauty and hope in Nobody Knowsbut the film is so long-winded and fragile that it overstays its welcome anddrifts out of reach when it should be exerting a firmer grip on the emotions.
Prod cos: TV Man, Union Inc
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Exec prod: Shigenobu Yutaka
Prod: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Cine: Yamazaki Yutaka
Ed: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Prod des: Isomi Toshihiro,Mitsumatsu Keiko
Main cast: Yagira Yuya, KitauraAyu, Kimuru Hiei, Shimizu Momoko, Kan Hanae