Nobody Knows

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 03/10/05 17:01:24

"The City of Lost Children."
5 stars (Awesome)

Moving in to a new apartment in Tokyo, single mom Keiko introduces her twelve-year-old son Akira to the landlord as her only child. She also explains that her “husband” is traveling abroad, which is as much a lie. After quickly hustling the movers out of the apartment, Keiko and Akira unzip two suitcases to reveal seven-year-old Shigeru and his small sister Yuki, age four. The last family member, Kyoko, 10, is smuggled in after dark, when Akira picks her up at the train station.

It quickly becomes clear that this method of moving is nothing new for these children. Warning them that if they make any noise or make their presence known in any way, they will be forced to move again, Keiko forbids all but Akira from leaving the apartment. Despite the two older siblings’ wish to be enrolled in school, Keiko denies them that, as well.

Sounding and behaving more like his 15-year-old sister than his mother, Keiko tells Akira that she is in love, to which Akira’s only response is, “Again?” He’s heard it all before. When she tells him that if this works out and the lover marries her, they can all move into a big house together, Akira can only shrug. He’s heard that one, too. Problem is, none of the men with whom Keiko gets involved seem to learn about the children. Her habit is to stay out late partying, often staying away for weeks at a time, leaving Akira in charge of running the household with just enough money to get by.

When, after a brief stint home in early December, Keiko leaves once more, promising to be back by Christmas, the children have no reason to know that this will be the last time they see their mother at all.

Although fictionalized, Nobody Knows is based upon a real-life case of child abandonment that scandalized Japan in the late 1980s. (There were five children in reality, four here.) Director Kore-eda Hirokazu crafted the film over the course of nearly a year, in chronological order, heightening the documentary effect. Kore-eda marks the progression of time not only by the changes in seasons, but by the gradual changes in the children’s physicality. In one scene, Keiko gives her elder daughter “pretty hands” by painting Kyoko’s nails; later, we see the young girl’s slightly longer hand, unpolished but for a chip of paint remaining on one nail. On her last visit home, Keiko gives her boys haircuts, with Shige complaining that his bangs are too short. Months later, the boys’ wild manes punctuate their desperation. When Akira’s voice breaks, Kyoko comments that his voice sounds funny and asks if he has a cold.

Most incredible is the outside world’s unquestioning indifference to the children’s increasingly dire – and seemingly obvious – plight. For an amazing length of time, Akira is able to keep the children fed and clothed and the bills paid before turning to their individual fathers (each has a different one) for money. One’s response is to complain to Akira that his girlfriend keeps him cash strapped – and to hit up the boy for a loan. At first, the other three children heed their mother’s dictum to stay in the apartment, until Akira sneaks Yuki out late at night as a treat on her birthday. When the landlord finally comes around calling for the rent, cradling a small dog in her arms, she shrugs at the youngsters’ claim that they are visiting cousins and walks away – obviously more attentive to the animal than the welfare of the children. By the time the electricity and water have been turned off, and still no one has intervened, Akira seems to comprehend the totality of their invisibility. When April rolls around and the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, he brings out his younger siblings’ shoes and allows them to joyously run free – a necessity by this time, since they need the water from the local park for bathing and drinking.

As it was with his brilliant After Life, Kore-eda’s storytelling here is quiet and dreamlike, as much a testament to the resiliency of children as the horror of abandonment. Kore-eda’s pacing is deliberate, and he allows the story to unfold through a series of exquisitely detailed close-ups that are almost snapshots: A child’s finger drawing a flower on a fogged window, a toy piano, a broken crayon, a squeaky sandal.

Other than the oddly named Japanese TV personality-reporter You, who plays their mother Keiko, Kore-eda’s four young stars are non-professionals, making it all the more noteworthy that Yagira Yûya was awarded the prize for Best Actor at Cannes 2004 for his astonishing portrayal of Akira.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.