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NOBODY KNOWS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yagira Yuya, Kitaura Ayu, Kimura Hiei, Shimizu Momoko, You, Kan Hanae
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Audio: Japanese stereo surround
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: MGM
Features: Trailers
Length: 141 minutes
Release Date: September 13, 2005

"Where were you, really, Mother?"

Film ****

Absolutely the single worst thing a mother can do is to betray the trust of her children.  Whether through abuse, neglect, or abandonment, any mother who would mistreat her children in such a manner is undeserving of being a parent, to say the very least.

One such regrettable case occurred in Japan in 1988 when a young mother abandoned her four children for six months, indirectly contributing to the death of one child.  The ensuing scandal, sensationalized by the Japanese press as "The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo," enraged the Japanese populace.  This real-life tragedy would eventually inspire Kore-eda Hirokazu's bittersweet film Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows, 2004).

Kore-eda's fictionalized account actually whitewashes the true events, which were far more horrific than anything depicted in the film.  In fact, there had been five children - two boys and three girls.  One boy died early from illness, and the mother simply sealed him up in plastic and hid his body in a closet.  The remaining children continued to stay at home, unschooled and essentially unsupervised.  No one knew of their existence, so when the mother later deserted her children for a lover, no one was the wiser.  The oldest boy, then fourteen, was left in charge of his three remaining sisters, none older than seven in age at the time.

During the mother's prolonged absence, the youngest sister was killed.  She had been beaten to death by one of the brother's so-called friends in a senseless rage.  Her body was discreetly buried by her brother.  Perhaps more siblings would have died had not the landlord grown suspicious and decided to inspect the apartment.  The sight that greeted the landlord must have been truly disheartening - a dilapidated home environment, littered with foul refuse among which resided these children, significantly malnourished and alone without adult supervision.

During the tumultuous national fallout which ensued, the mother turned herself in and ended up serving three years in prison, plus probation.  Her son was cleared of wrongdoing.  Most disturbingly, the mother eventually regained legal custody of her two surviving daughters following her release from prison.

Kore-eda's film is not quite this distressing.  Told almost entirely from the children's perspective, the film nonetheless does convey the extent to which children, in face of insurmountable obstacles, might resign themselves to a seemingly preordained fate (the child actors actually did work in the squalor of a single apartment during filming, adding a further note of realism to this poignant tale).

One senses in this a situation a parallel to the psychology behind an encaged and tortured animal.  In such a hypothetical experiment, the animal, locked in a mesh iron cage with no means of escape, is tormented, either through continual electrical shocks or other painful stimulation.  At first, the pitiful creature may attempt repeatedly to escape its confines, but no matter its efforts, the pain persists.  Eventually, the creature resigns itself to a seemingly hopeless fate, the will to resist sapped as the creature simply lies listlessly in its prison.

Major depression is very much like this, for the individual perceives such an overwhelming sense of grief or personal anguish that he becomes emotionally paralyzed and subsequently lost to the world.  Would children react in a similar fashion?  Would a child view parental abandonment as an opportunity for unsupervised play, or would he too in time succumb to the lethargy that goes hand in hand with prolonged grief and despair?

Nobody Knows, using the basis of the real-life Japanese case as inspiration, postulates one such path taken by four abandoned children.  While the identities of the actual children involved in the real-life case were never revealed, in the film, there are four named children, two boys and two girls.  The eldest is twelve-year old Akira (Yagira Yuya), who will be entrusted with the care of his brother, seven-year-old brother Shigeru (Kimura Hiei), and two younger sisters, ten-year-old sister Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu) and five-year-old sister Yuji (Shimizu Momoko).  In as much as the film has a central protagonist, that character is Akira.  We see in him a degree of maturity that is lacking in the mother, Keiko (Japanese columnist You).  Even in his youth, Akira grasps the potential ramifications of his mother's irresponsible, self-serving nature, but as a child, he is unable to control such impulsivity in her.

For Keiko, adulthood is simply a game, and she does not regard her parental duties seriously.  Why worry about nurturing children when there are lovers to be sampled and indulgent fun to be had?  Still, Keiko is not a complete monster.  She never shouts at her children nor does she beat them. When she is home, she lavishes presents and love upon the children.  But, the road to hell is paved surely with good intentions, and Keiko's fatal flaw is a basic selfishness and unwillingness to ultimately choose her children over her own pleasures.

As Nobody Knows opens, Keiko and her son Akira are moving into a new apartment in Tokyo.  The tenement has strict rules regarding children and noise.  As a result, Keiko's remaining three children have to be snuck into the apartment in suitcases.  Only Akira is allowed out of the apartment to run various errands; the remaining children must hide or risk eviction for the entire family.  The children seem very accepting of their unusual living arrangements, implying that this behavioral discretion has become familiar to them.  Such irregular social conditioning bears out Keiko's almost child-like disregard for mature responsibilities, a characteristic which will have dire consequences once she abandons her children for good.

Keiko's presence at home becomes more infrequent as time progresses.  She reneges on a promise to return home for Christmas, half-heartedly blaming the requirements of her job for keeping her away.  Once Keiko ceases to send money to her children, the focus of the film shifts entirely upon the children.  In her absence, Akira must bear the burden of being the "adult" in the family, although he is too young to hold a job and too naïve to fully cope with the gravity of his family's plight.  His best efforts to support his siblings or to conserve the dwindling funds are betrayed by his simple inexperience and that intangible requirement for all children - the insatiable desire to explore, to question, to play, in short, the need to be simply nothing more than just a carefree child.

Although these children are denied emotional escapism and sufficient parental guidance, they are not entirely passive.  Akira longs to attend school and, when he is not running an errand, sits longingly at the playground or near school grounds.  He even encounters a possible kindred spirit in Saki (Kan Hanae), a young student also tormented by her own personal problems.  Akira's eldest sister Kyoko wishes to go to school as well, but she does not possess the freedom to roam outdoors as does her brother.  Instead, she stays confined within the apartment doing laundry and household chores; in her ample spare time, she plucks away sadly at a toy piano or reads children's stories to her younger siblings.  One senses in Kyoko a longing for maternal attention.  The desire for parental love is particularly strong in young Yuki, whose innocent conviction that the mother will return on her birthday can only lead to heartbreaking disappointment.

The children face the mundane problems of any common household - the basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.  The passage of time is portrayed in subtle manners - lengthening hair, fading fingernail polish, increasing indifference to the outside world.  When the children run out of food, Akira resorts to loitering about the back doors of restaurants and shopping marts or frequenting the local pachinko parlors and taxi stands for hand-outs.  When their clothing begin to wear away, the children simply wear their increasingly ragged clothing.  When the utilities are shut off, the children go to the local park for water, even washing their laundry in the public fountains.  Life becomes a real game of hide-and-seek for these children.  Even as the situation becomes desperate, Akira refuses to contact the police or social services for fear that the children will be split up.  Ironically, Akira's earnest attempts to maintain a sense of family unity in their mother's absence without outside help is one reason for the inevitable hardships which befall the family.

Nobody Knows is presented in a semi-documentary style.  It is an honest portrayal of children, trapped in a hopeless situation, attempting as best they can to cope with adult problems beyond their limited experience to handle.  While such a subject matter is ripe for saccharine melodrama, Nobody Knows avoids clichés or sentimentality or overdramatizations.  There are still many tender moments in the film- the pure joy on their faces when the children brave a rare day together outdoors, the delight in exchanging New Year's gifts, even the simple pleasure of a family meal together.

In today's society, despite our children's incessant demands for greater independence, they should not be expected to fend for themselves.  Even when removed from society's influence, such as portrayed in Isao Takahata's profoundly sad Grave of the Fireflies or William Golding's allegorical The Lord of the Flies, children still require a greater authority figure.  Without such guidance, there can be only eventual disorder or chaos.  And in chaos lies the root of tragedy and despair.

The film's tentative conclusion confers some sense of optimism, although we recognize the bittersweet future in store for these children, persevere as they might.  In essence, Nobody Knows is a visual Ars moriendi.  Developmentally, emotionally, and physically, the film's children are dying, and Nobody Knows is their symbolic rite of passage through the Kübler-Ross stages of the loss process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance).  However innocently or purely the story may be related through the children's perspective, their tale belies the inevitably sad consequences of maternal betrayal, embodied in one who should above all be most trustworthy and dear to a child's heart.

Video ***

Nobody Knows was photographed using an Aaton Super 16 camera in predominately natural lighting.  Filming occurred chronologically over the course of nearly one year.  As a result, the film has a naturalistic and authentic look to it, very important considering that the story is conveyed much more through its images than through any dialogue.

Audio ** ½

As always with MGM DVDs, keep the volume on mute whenever loading this disc.  You can reset the volume once the flash page concludes (unless you prefer to have your ear drums blown out first).

Audio for the film is presented in Japanese.  Much of the sound is comprised of ambient background noise.  There is very little music, and even dialogue is marginalized or incidental.

Features ½*

There are trailers for the award-winning Iraqi film Turtles Can Fly, Look at Me, the animé films Steamboy and Tokyo Godfathers, the quirky comedy Off the Map, and the rally race film Dust to Glory.

Summary:

Nobody Knows is deeply affecting, all the more due to its real-life inspiration.  With this film (and his prior films Maborosi and After Life), Kore-eda Hirokazu aptly demonstrates why he is considered the most humanistic of contemporary Japanese directors.

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