Abandoned by their mother mere months after moving to their new apartment, four siblings; Akira, Yuki, Kyoko and Shigeru are left to survive on their own without any outside help. With separate fathers and none of them willing to take up responsibility, elder brother Akira takes charge and does whatever means necessary to ensure his family’s survival.
Cannes Film Festival winner Nobody Knows is a tasteful and heart-warming drama that portrays the struggles of abandonment in an interesting and diverse light. The film was inspired by a true story that hit headlines in Japan in 1988; a mother (whose details remain disclosed) abandoned her children with no warning and only ¥50,000 to hand after meeting her new boyfriend. Much like the children in the movie, they were left to struggle on their own, eating food bought from discount convenience stores until they were discovered by police. Much less gritty than its real-life counterpart, Nobody Knows instead focuses on the troubles of coping in a more optimistic portrayal; and though a tad slow and perhaps boring in places, it’s filled with dramatic ups and downs that keep you on your toes.
The film begins with a quirky and humorous opening; mother Keiko (played by Japanese TV star, YOU) and her eldest son, Akira (Yagira) introduce themselves politely to their new landlords before they haul suitcases and furniture into their new apartment. Opening the suitcases, they’ve managed to smuggle the two younger siblings; cheeky and playful Shigeru (Kimura) and the sweet, melt-your-heart Yuki (Shimizu) inside. Their elder sister, the quietly reserved and sensible Kyoko, joins them sometime later on her own by train (well, I suppose we don’t all fancy being squashed inside a suitcase). The children are immediately introduced to a life of secrecy through their mother’s rules; no going outside and no loud voices or screaming. Apparently this was how they got kicked out of their last home, and so for the children’s sake, Keiko sugar coats most of the information she tells them. Sadly though, this “sugar coating” becomes much less sweet as time wears on. What appears to be a single mother struggling to get by and help her children slowly turns to disinterest and directed more to the pursuit of a man she’s met; and apparently not the first. She comes home one night drunk, and it raises eyebrows to whether her lack of responsibility as a mother has recurred since the birth of each of her children. With only two potential fathers willing to lend Akira money, the film also touches on the subject of parental responsibility and the uncaring nature of those who are careless. Eventually, and most likely predictably, Keiko leaves the children once again on a “work trip”, promising to be home for Christmas. She never comes back for them, and nor do the children want to admit themselves to Social Services fearing they will be separated. It is these themes of family and dependence that drive the film’s story forward and make for a delightful watch that explores the values of loved ones and challenges its audience on what these children deserve.
Nobody Knows isn’t overly dramatic in the way it attempts to portray the lives of these young children. Instead, what director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, Distance) does is let the film tell you its story slowly but surely. Sure, it’s not action-packed or full of overly dramatic catalysts and for a two hour and a half movie, that may seem all rather mundane. Instead, what Kore-eda brings us is a tale that weaves along pleasantly, and the events that follow come as a surprise and are equally heartbreaking simply because the pace is so easy-going and unpredictable. And with children leading the main roles, it’s the perfect structure – they’re growing up and learning little by little, and we do too along with them; in everything from the innocent wonderings of whether Totoro, zombies, UFOs or Santa Claus are real, to budgeting money for the rent, utility bills and food. As the actors’ performances are mostly improvised, and the child actors in no way professional, it makes for a charming taste of realism and introduces us to a child’s way of dealing with the world. While everything may crumble around them, they do what they can with the help of the few friends they meet along the way – you never know, it might teach you a few lessons about the value of the smaller things in life. It certainly did me.
So, if you’re in the mood for a chilled out, easy-going film, warm characters, a Cannes Film Festival winner and an interesting insight into a story that shocked the majority of Japan, than hit this one up on your next Lovefilm international rental list. Though, if you’re more of an action junkie, you may be put off by the increasing standard of calm in this film. One thing’s for certain however, don’t underestimate the freedom of childhood nor the desperation of individuals when their dependence comes crashing down.
(If you would like to read more on the Sugamo Child Abandonment Case that Nobody Knows was based on, Wikipedia has an article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_four_abandoned_children_of_Sugamo )
Starring: Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, YOU.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Running Time: 140 minutes