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Nobody Knows
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by Jay Seaver

"A tragedy of indifference."
5 stars

Stories like the one which inspired Nobody Knows give one a better appreciation for the busybody - ones where each individual act is strange, but not strange enough to get noticed by someone minding their won business. Add them up, though, and the totality becomes almost unbelievable and shameful. It's the kind of story that could give rise to a sermonizing, strident film, but director Kore-eda Hirokazu makes something a little more interesting than that.

As the movie opens, Keiko and her twelve-year-old son, Akira, are moving into a new apartment The landlords think she's nice, and recognize Akira as the responsible boy he is, but say they're glad she doesn't have any more children. What they don't realize is that she does - the two youngest, Shigeru and Yuki, were smuggled in inside suitcases, with twelve-year-old Kyoko waiting at the train station until nightfall to sneak in unnoticed. At dinner, Keiko reminds the children that they must do what Akira says, and never get discovered, which means no going outside or making too much noise. The next day, she goes off to work, leaving Akira in charge. Soon, she's gone for days. Then weeks. Then...

It seems an unlikely premise, even if based on a true story. But Hirokazu and his young cast present us with enough details that we believe in it. The kids, after all, have never noticed any other kind of life. The mother seems to be somewhat mentally deficient; her four kids from different fathers bespeak a lifetime of making decisions without considering the consequences. Meanwhile, the siblings' fear of being split up by social services is strong enough to override the instinctive need to ask for help when they're in over their heads.

Based on the trailers and the description, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect a kid-empowerment movie - mom abandon kids, but they prove resourceful, pulling the wool over the eyes of the stupid adults, only to have her reappear with a reasonable explanation for her absence just as the kids face a situation which they can't handle. Though Hirokazu has apparently toned down the details of the events which inspired the movie, he has not changed the narrative that much. Instead, we see a series of times when someone should have figured out that something wasn't right - or had it outright shown to him or her - and yet does not act. It's disturbing, most particularly in the case of Saki, a pretty schoolgirl who befriends Akira and his siblings but does not ever seem to worry about them.

One of the most striking things about Nobody Knows is how cumulative its effect is. Hirokazu filmed the story over the course of a year, and though he probably spent only a month or two of that time actually shooting, it's time well spent. Little details that would not necessarily make any conscious impression are all in place, whether it be the leaves on trees, seeing one's breath in the winter, or the kids' clothes and hair steadily becoming messier. The siblings grow and mature, and apartment which looks cute and fanciful in the beginning deteriorates. The audience can feel time passing without the film cutting to calendars or explicitly telling us how long Keiko has been gone with subtitles or dialogue. Certainly, this could be achieved mainly with good continuity supervision, costuming, set decoration (and those things certainly help), but this way, nothing is missed because it can't be.

I haven't seen enough by Hirokazu to recognize this film as being uniquely and obviously his. His style seems to use a lot of static shots, along with returning to the same location/camera set up repeatedly. Here, it reinforces the passage of time and deterioration of the children's situation, while giving the audience time to ruminate on what's happening. The pacing isn't deliberately plodding, though - at two hours and twenty minutes, it doesn't fly by, but each scene has enough purpose that the audience doesn't become impatient. There's a real danger of that, since the story is very simple and has little in the way of plot twists, but Hirokazu manages to avoid that.

That each scene is effective rests in large part on the kids in his cast. For the most part, they're the sort of performances that seem deceptively easy - the director sticks them in a scene and says "be kids". And maybe it is just that simple, although I've seen enough child actors incapable of handling that task that I doubt it. It helps believability that the seven-year-old who would often be "just adorable" is instead a loud child, and kind of annoying. Special notice goes to Yuya Yagira as Akira, who has to simultaneously seem resourceful and out of his depth, both old (in terms of responsibility) and young (in terms of knowledge) for his age.

Nobody Knows isn't subtle, but it isn't a sledgehammer, either. It's a constant pressure on the audience like the constant pressure on its characters.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10570&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/12/05 21:10:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Mill Valley Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/15/15 filmiw23 worst fucking movie ever!!! 1 stars
9/18/10 Evelyn Fun as Foot Fungus! 1 stars
2/16/07 Angela Oscar Worthy 5 stars
12/05/05 Gene Carmean bad mothers exist in every culture 4 stars
10/09/05 launda no comments 5 stars
8/28/05 Sydnie Monty one of the greatest pieces of cinema I have seen in 25 years. 5 stars
8/15/05 Richie Cataulin The kids are excellent actors 5 stars
7/29/05 Eddie Fucking Shit 1 stars
7/15/05 Dennis Not To Be Missed 5 stars
4/15/05 Colleen Goldrick excellent movie 5 stars
3/30/05 Butt devastatingly poignant 5 stars
3/10/05 Elizabeth S Moments of childhood joy found in heartwrenching circumstances. 5 stars
2/26/05 JILL WEISSICH excellent, disturbing, powerful 5 stars
11/22/04 Not must see 5 stars
10/07/04 Mike powerfully tragic 5 stars
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  DVD: 13-Sep-2005



Directed by
  Hirokazu Kore-eda

Written by
  Hirokazu Kore-eda

  YŻya Yagira
  Ayu Kitaura
  Hiei Kimura
  Momoko Shimizu
  Janae Kan

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