The worst thing in the world is that someone’s suffering should go unacknowledged,”
Terence Davies told a New York Film Festival press conference back in 1989. He was explaining the
motivation for his extraordinary, highly affecting film Distant Voices, Still Lives,
about the fearful home atmosphere that his mother and older siblings endured. It was a grim yet exultant
movie musical. There was no doubt where Davies felt sympathy (and joy). But he also recognized his
tyrannical father’s personal torment. Davies’ artistry—his humanity—extended
a harsh pity to the monster that was in his blood.
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda provides a similar testimony in Nobody
Knows. Not autobiographical like Davies’ film, Nobody Knows is based on an actual
1988 news item called, “Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo.” Kore-eda reports
on that event, but this film is emotional and highly creative, not a fact-seeking documentary work.
Kore-eda re-imagines a young single mother Keiko (played by the actress known as YOU) raising her
four children, each fathered by different men. After sneaking three of them into a regular family
apartment complex in Tokyo’s Nishi-Sugamo district, Keiko begins a surreptitious family life:
the oldest boy, 12-year-old Akira (Yûya Yagira), goes to school while the youngest children,
daughter Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), second son Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and girl toddler Yuki (Momoko Shimizu),
hide out at home.
They’re made into hermits, fugitives from social workers and the Ministry
of Education. But they’re still family. Kore-eda shows that Keiko’s unstable arrangement results
from her own immaturity and bad choices. Instead of harsh pity, Kore-eda applies mercy towards
Keiko’s erratic nature that is reflected in the behavior of her children who are respectful, shy
and intimidated by the outside world. Wary of being separated, the children’s circle is bound by
a loving interdependence. Keiko leaves Akira in charge whenever she goes out with men, eventually
abandoning her brood altogether.
As a record of the small family’s suffering, Nobody Knows is
only inadvertently a story of abuse; it’s primarily the intimate, inside view of a social statistic.
Keiko’s like so many young women not ready for the responsibilities of motherhood, plus she’s unwilling
to commit herself to the necessary sacrifices. Although she’s more benign than Terence Davies’
ogre-like father figure, she endangers the family through her own failings—selfishness,
exhaustion and anxiety about the carefree life that eludes her. We face the devastating fact that
this mother of four feels robbed of her youth.
That insight shows Kore-eda has something of Davies’ understanding
about complex family tragedy. He acknowledges Keiko’s misery—her detachment from Japanese
custom—and sees it as the root of his drama. Nobody Knows goes beyond the issue of
single mothers to observe the troubling phenomenon of adults who don’t know how to be parents—or
fully functioning people. This generational folly, an advent of both the post-war baby boom and
the spread of industrial capitalism around the world, becomes apparent when Keiko returns from
“work” drunk, waking the kids to give them a surprise sushi meal. In this stressful, impromptu party,
they all seem to be playing house. Both older kids Akira and Kyoko are nearly Keiko’s height, so the
three of them can look each other in the eye, but they avoid sharing the same thought: They know the
game is a ruse and that the illusion of family stability is soon to collapse.
How Kore-eda attends to the clan’s alternating happiness and sadness
sets Nobody Knows apart from other films about children who are thrust into adulthood.
Coppola’s The Outsiders represents the American paradigm; it winningly (and hysterically)
romanticized adolescent deprivation. References to Gone With the Wind alluded to Coppola’s
glorification of the American individualism and the allure of the juvenile delinquent as found
in each young male protagonist—the most impulsive (Matt Dillon) and the most conscientious
(C. Thomas Howell).
But Kore-eda daydreams differently, focusing on mundane details like
a washing machine’s hum-and-thump that signifies domestic stability or the loud outbursts of
the tyke Shigeru that could be just an excess of boyish energy or chemical imbalance. Kore-eda’s
poetic, but his minutiae has an authentic resonance. Where Coppola aimed for pathos, Kore-eda
subtly suggests that the modern tragedy he addresses can sometimes be paradoxical; it may contain
moments of unexpected beauty. Davies showed the same thing whenever his beleaguered family members
broke into song and Kore-eda’s knowledge also makes for some remarkable moments: Akira wrestles
with his math homework, largely to communicate with Keiko; he gives in to a superficial intellectual
challenge in order to feel intimate.
Nobody Knows recalls the dilemma of “babies making babies”—the
tragedy that results from social disintegration. (“I hope you will look out for us,” Keiko appeals
to a pair of older tenants who are never seen again.) Fittingly, the film’s four-seasons structure,
used to reveal the children’s yearning, is uncannily lyrical. This film could be a dark yet gentle
rap-poem—from the opening sequence of the smallest children being smuggled-in through
Keiko’s luggage to a later, complementary scene of Akira and a friend (the lonely school girl Saki
played by Hanae Kan) hauling the same pink suitcase through a Tokyo airport en route to a burial.
These haunting images evoke a young family’s struggle with its own innocence, a small but great
effort happening at the periphery of society’s awareness.
I did not expect such lucidity from Kore-eda, whose previous U.S. release,
the unaccountably lauded After-Life, I thought barely tolerable. After-Life indulged a too-precious conceit in which dead people were allowed to choose a memory to sustain
them through eternity. It seemed a pedantic version of ideas already made pithy in Albert Brooks’
Defending My Life or profound in Spielberg’s Hook. Kore-eda’s film just seemed
strained. What a surprise to see his artsiness become relevant in an age that commonly reduces this
film’s scandalous subject to tabloid sensationalism. I now realize that After-Life appealed
to a nascent agnostic prejudice in today’s film culture. In Nobody Knows, Kore-eda re-connects
to good ol’ fellow-feeling.
There’s a wonderful scene where Akira walks at night with his sister
Kyoko into the world that ignites his curiosity and they pause to observe a monorail, lit from within
and zooming along the rails overhead. It recalled the freight trains I used to hear as a kid lying
in bed at night but it also equaled the significant, immortal train imagery that is linked to youthful
wishing in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and as recently as Alirezi Raisian’s Deserted
Station. I value the sensitivity and compassion in such Kore-eda observations. A shot of two
different hands playing Kyoko’s red toy piano is poignant for its image of unspecified communion.
Another scene shows Akira drawing a childlike smile on the back of a cancelled water bill. Little
Yuki enjoys a gift of Apollo Choco candies then closes the box lid (“I’ll save it for later,” she says
with grown-up rationality). And a superb sequence where Akira visits two of the babydaddies with
which he’s familiar shows his different reactions to the contrasting personalities of two men—his
own remote father and the jock-like man he admires. These regular Japanese guys are like Keiko,
surprised parents who treat Akira as an equal because they lack the parenting faculty. And Kore-eda
ends the sequence by leaving us with the image of Akira trying to imitate one of them, desperate for
a role model.
By mixing his characters’ hope and suffering, Kore-eda creates an ambivalent
view of urban pressure and precarious family unity. Nobody Knows is consonant with the
rap-era’s hard and soft estimations of how people persevere in a cold society—the paradox
found in such distinctive modern rap recordings as Jay-Z’s “You Must Love Me” and “Song Cry.” Similarly,
Kore-eda gives his young characters’ feelings the lilting, forlorn quality we associate with
fable even while understanding that this family’s dilemma is part of a larger social tragedy. Kore-eda
has come up with a film whose style is equal parts emotional fable and political tragedy. He’s acknowledged
private suffering in the best public way.