Nobody Knows


Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Nobody Knows
"A labour of love that invites you into a disturbing world on the margins of society, invisible to most."

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate and heart-wrenching drama about four children abandoned by their mother is a masterpiece of subtlety and naturalism. Inspired by true events in the 1980s, scripted 15 years before the film was finally made, and shot chronologically over a year, it is a labour of love that invites you into a disturbing world on the margins of society, invisible to most.

On a sunny day in Tokyo, a woman (You) and her eldest son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), are moving home. Once inside the new flat they begin to unpack and two small children are unzipped from the suitcases where they have been hiding. Akira goes out to collect another sister, Kyoko (too big for a suitcase), from town later that evening, and quietly smuggles her into the new home.

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The mother goes over the ground-rules – no noise, no going out onto the balcony - necessary to avoid being kicked out by the landlord. School is out of the question, even for Akira. The mother’s squeaky, bubble-gum voice prefigures her infantile and breezily irresponsible nature well before her actions confirm it. One day the children wake up to find her gone, with just a note to say she will be away, and a bundle of cash to cover the rent and bills.

Yuya Yagira is astonishingly confident in the role of Akira, and has strong support from Ayu Kitaura, who plays the next-oldest, Kyoko. Akira tries his utmost to be an adult and to fill the gap that his mother has left in their life, but fails necessarily. He budgets painstakingly for bills and grocery spends, but later blows their money on video games and snacks when he has some new friends to impress.

The children’s resilience and optimism is in stark contrast to the adults around them, who are limited as human beings and woefully inadequate role models. When, in desperation, Akira calls on the father of one of his siblings to ask for money, he’s greeted by a crass, immature man on a par with the kids’ mother. A shy clerk at the local convenience store gets to know the children’s predicament, but beyond suggesting Akira go to social services she is unwilling or unable to get involved.

After the mother first leaves, the children manage to maintain a semblance of routine and tidiness in the home, but this gradually disintegrates. Watching the degradation of the children’s living conditions is painful, but Kore-eda is careful to alternate this with glimpses of the childish happiness the four share in between the periods of loneliness, hunger and hardship. Yutaka Yamasaki’s cinematography captures perfectly their hazily-lit existence, rich in the details of their home’s everyday squalor, the reassuring order of the town outside, the comfort and wonder of the siblings’ relationships, and their stolen time outside.

Nobody Knows is a magical picture, at times unbearably sad but with strikingly uplifting moments, which persist until the hopeful ending. Without being mawkish or melodramatic, it tackles its heavy subject matter fearlessly, and assures us that friendship and love can endure even through unspeakable pain and grief.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2009
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Film based on true events, charting a year in the life of four children abandoned by their mother.
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Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Yûya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You

Year: 2004

Runtime: 141 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Japan


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