Yûya Yagira as Akira
Ayu Kitaura as Kyoko
Hiei Kimura as Shigeru
Momoko Shimizu as Yuki
Hanae Kan as Saki
You as Keiko
This low-budget indie from Japan makes a strong statement on neglecting your kids via a heartbreaking tale that seems too real for comfort. Despite many enjoyable scenes, the tragedy that befalls these kids as their situation worsens makes it too much of a downer to be fully enjoyed.
A single mother has kept three of her four children-all from different fathers–a secret from the outside world. When she abandons them, the eldest boy Akira (Yuya Yagira) is forced to fend for himself, trying to find money and food while keeping the family together.
Based on a real event, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows is an amazing little movie that starts out as an indie family drama but evolves into a very different type of coming-of-age story. At the center of it is the young boy Akira who is forced to grow up quicker than normal due to his mother’s inability to own up to her own responsibilities.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to Keiko, played by Japanese television personality You, as she moves into a small apartment in a Tokyo complex with her son Akira. She actually has three other children, but she’s so afraid that no one will rent an apartment to a woman with four kids and no husband. She sneaks the two younger kids in via the luggage and brings in her older daughter Kyoko under cover of nighttime. Akira is allowed to come and go, but he is never sent to school, while his younger siblings are never even allowed outside the apartment in fear that others may discover Keiko’s secret. Despite the restrictions, it’s a close-knit family who enjoy each other’s company and the kids are used to their mother “working” late and coming home drunk. In essence, Keiko acts more childlike than her kids, leaving Akira and Kyoko to take care of many of the household responsibilities.
After disappearing for a few days, Keiko returns and tells the kids that she will be going away for a while. She leaves them with some money, but a week turns to a month and after the money and food run out, their electricity and water is turned off. Akira doesn’t want the younger kids thinking their mother has abandoned them, but Kyoko is less forgiving and gets more and more angry about their wayward mother. Akira does what he can, tracking down the fathers of his siblings, hoping that one of them will take responsibility for the kids, but he’s barely even able to get a hand-out from them. Akira eventually decides that his brother and sisters can’t remain a secret and they venture outside, where they befriend a teen girl with her own family problems.
As you watch Nobody Knows, it’s hard not to get caught up in the tragedy of these kids suffering from the neglect of an irresponsible mother, because it all seems very real, almost like a documentary. The physical transformation of the kids throughout the movie is jarring, since Kore-eda chose to film it in sequential order over an extended period of time. It’s method acting to the nth degree as the kids lose weight, their hair grows long and they become more and more unkempt.
Yuya Yagira shows himself to be an amazing young actor, exuding an incredible maturity while trying to deal with situations that go beyond anything one his age must deal with. His subdued performance makes Akira’s plight even sadder, since he’s clearly a boy who never had a chance to have a childhood. Hanae Kan, the veteran of the troupe, is also great as the girl who befriends Akira but ends up having to do unscrupulous things to earn money to help him. The youngest kids are both adorable. You can’t help but smile when they’re on screen, especially when the youngest girl Yuki chooses to wear these squeaky sneakers as her brother tries to sneak her out into the real world as a birthday present. The fact that the majority of the cast make their acting debuts with Nobody Knows is highly impressive, although the kids don’t necessarily act as much as just be kids. It’s different from many American dramas in that it doesn’t feel scripted; all of the dialogue seems very natural, almost as if it was improvised.
Nobody Knows shows a great cross-section of Japanese living through the eyes of its youngest citizens, but it’s tough to watch the conditions these kids are forced to endure. Obviously, Kore-eda wanted to put the kids through a lot of different situations, but something about the way the movie was shot and edited kept him from realizing that the movie is far too long for what it is. More than a few segments could have easily been cut, like when Akira befriends some local boys who only want to use his apartment to escape from grown-ups. You also wonder why no one bothers to check in on them, especially since the clerks down at the supermarket know something is wrong as soon as they keep showing up to get leftovers. The pop ballad during the film’s end sequence also seemed ill-placed and inappropriate.
The Bottom Line:
Interesting ideas and fine young talent makes this sublime human drama a truly unique experience. The long length, slow pace and tragic premise will not make this a film for everyone, but it is original, powerful and ultimately unforgettable.