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Among Japanese filmmakers, some seem to have a unique capacity for slowly and patiently observing the most ordinary details of day-to-day life and, from an accumulation of such observations, acutely drawing perceptive and emotionally resonant insights. Kurosawa did it in his more intimate films, like Ikiru. Ozu does it often; Tokyo Story is a good example. These low-keyed films have a way of getting under the skin and etching themselves into the soul of the viewer.
From a younger generation comes director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose 1998 After Life drew rapturous critical attention. Nobody Knows fits squarely into the tradition, but with its own imaginative wings and a fresh, contemporary feel to its storytelling. The film is fiction, but is based on a true incident that was widely reported in Japan. The mother of four children, each with a different father, leaves a note with some money and disappears out of their lives.
Kore-eda takes that basic premise and four thoroughly endearing young actors, all amateurs, ages seven to twelve when filming began, and traces thegradual, ineluctable outcome of their plight over the four seasons of a year. They live in a cramped apartment, the three youngest not even known to the landlord. Initially, only the eldest, Akira (Yagira Yuya), leaves the apartment at all. They’re not even allowed out on the balcony. School isn’t a possibility.
These are well-behaved youngsters who brush their teeth and do household chores and read books without being told. The younger two, in particular, have the energy and spontaneity of kids, imaginations soaring, alive with curiosity. There is a communal sense to their family–they live together harmoniously, amazingly free of sibling conflicts.
Akira, as the eldest, is the natural leader; he manages the money, pays the bills, even keeps records to figure out how to make the money last. He shops for the groceries and cooks the meals. Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), 10, is restrained, quiet. She longs to go to school. She plays on a toy piano, wishing it were real, poignantly pointing up the loss of creativity when a child doesn’t have the opportunity to learn. Shigeru (Kimura Hiei), 7, is all boyishness, a gleam in his eye, zooming his airplanes about, slurping up his ramen. Yuki (Shimizu Momoko), the youngest, hoards her candies to make them last. When she has a birthday, her big treat is to be taken out of the apartment for a walk.
Inevitably, as money runs out, life becomes more difficult and conditions deteriorate. Kore-eda actually shot the film over four seasons, developing the script a season ahead of the filming. Amassing a series of small incidents that illuminate the very nature of childhood and the behavioral and emotional impact of deprivation, Nobody Knows and its astounding collection of young actors capture the heart without a hint of tear-jerking or saccharine sentimentality. That the captured heart will ultimately be ravaged with empathy over the fate of these kids is inherent in the situation itself; it has an unavoidable inevitability. But there’s no way to spend a couple of hours with them and not come away with a sense of deeper understanding accompanying a profound sadness.