Hirokazu Kore-eda’s docu-style drama Nobody Knows is something of a study in human devolution and flawed society. Based on the true story of a family of four abandoned by their mother, it’s perhaps not as shocking as something you might see on the nightly news, but then that wasn’t really the director’s intention, to shock. Instead, with a subtle hand, Kore-eda questions. His subtle, almost-there commentary about the state of the modern family, social and individual responsibility and the intrinsic needs of youth is lovely, painful, inspiring and disturbing in turns. It might have been easy to sensationalise this content, to preach right and wrongs; and with a lesser director that would have almost certainly been the case, yet this particular director avoids such overt heartstring tugging in favour of a more sympathetic view.
It’s this more than anything that stands as testimony to Kore-eda’s astonishing sensitivity and feeling. Never judge, only observer, he draws back a curtain to reveal a poignant reality that might have been, in anyone else’s hands, an exercise in denial. Akira (Yuuya Yagira) is the oldest son in a fatherless family, responsible seemingly beyond his years. After helping smuggle his two younger sisters and younger brother into their new apartment, he settles into an obviously familiar routine, shopping, cooking, keeping his siblings in order and struggling through homework he has set himself because neither he nor the others have ever been allowed to go to school. Out of the four of them he’s the only one really even allowed to leave the house, and therefore the only one with even a remotely normal understanding of the outside world. When his mother Keiko, played capably and convincingly by You (Stereo Future, Moonchild), comes and goes in his family’s life in increasingly lengthy intervals, and seems little more than a child herself, it becomes more and more apparent that he is the one keeping this odd little unit together. Keiko’s carefree (or perhaps careless) actions, her youthful looks and sweet, childish demeanour make it hard to believe she has ever been old enough to support and care for four children on her own.
The tragedy of this story is that, in fact, she isn’t.
The fascination with this tragedy is in watching the illusion of responsibility shatter in Akira’s role as surrogate caretaker in his mother’s absence. Keiko’s own innocence, her inability to live up to the realities of what society says the role of a single mother ought to involve becomes increasingly, discomfortingly easy to understand watching Akira face the same pressures of becoming a parent too soon. He keeps everyone to the routine of living, managing bills and begging money from men who may or may not be fathers to the four abandoned children, but the scaffolding established by the only authority figure he and his siblings have ever really known only holds for a while. Eventually, under pressure he was never meant to bear, Akira’s yearnings for a ‘normal’ life become increasingly seductive until he is functioning more like the twelve-year old boy he is, rather than the father he never actually was.
It’s difficult to say this film is enjoyable to watch. It makes you feel something, certainly, but it’s hard to determine what. Mild shock and sorrow, yes but there is something innocent and pleasing in the way Kore-eda shows the children constructing their own meaning from the foundations of the world left to them. He uses that childlike playfulness and sense of wonder at the new to show that while we are looking on from the outside in mild horror, those on the inside, who haven’t known any differently, make do with what they have almost instinctively. And maybe it’s the fact that this isn’t something restricted solely to the realm of youth, that sometimes people make their own rules when they can’t meet the ones the world hands them, that it truly Kore-eda’s point. He handles things so simply and without embellishment, that it’s difficult to lay blame on any one person, particularly the mother. His camera is gentle and real, intimate without intruding, and if the adage of never working with animals or children was ever true, it certainly doesn’t seem to apply to this director. What he brings out in these four child-actors, over the course of a year’s chronological filming, is truly, truly amazing. Little wonder that Yagira won Best Actor at Cannes in 2004.
Inarguably a story-teller of compassion and depth, Kore-eda is not so much making his mark on Japanese film as he is making his heartfelt way in the world and allowing us a glimpse of the way he sees it. Considering such potentially shocking subject matter as child neglect and abandonment, to be able to ask the right questions, rather than point an accusing finger, is a rare talent indeed.