Nobody Knows

March, 2005, Drama

Remember what it was like being a kid? Wanting desperately to fit in with your peers, feuding with siblings, enjoying the warmth and security of your parents’ love? Can you imagine what it would be like to face growing up knowing you’d been completely abandoned long before you could handle the adult world and its frightening complexities? Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda can. Working from an actual incident reported a few years ago in the Tokyo press, the writer/director gathered a cast of child actors and provided them with a script so fully realized that he’s created an engrossing film which mesmerizes with every frame of its two and a third hours.  

An attractive woman and her solemn son of no more than a dozen years rent a unit in an apartment building which allows no more than 1 child per family. But as soon as they have their keys, the pair manages to sneak in the boy’s younger sister Kyoko and some suspiciously heavy suitcases. These turn out to contain Shigeru and little Yuki, a pair of still younger siblings. Keiko, the mother of this quartet, (played by a Japaneeese pop-star named You) has the feckless charm of an attractive teenage baby sitter, but she lives off the grid; the three youngest children aren’t permitted to leave their tiny home, even to venture out onto the apartment’s postage-sized balcony lest they be spotted and evicted. None of the children go to school; Keiko sees no reason why they should, since she didn’t, blithely ignoring the painfully obvious desire of Akira and Kyoko to do so. Keiko works a boring job during the day and favors the attractions of the neighborhood’s bars in the evenings, so the kids have long since learned to fend for themselves.

Soon she’s sporting a new boyfriend who’s asked her to go away with him. Having neglected to mention the children to her new suitor, Keiko puts some cash on the kitchen/living room table one evening and tells Akira she’s going away for a while to take a new job; he’s in charge until her return. Short absences being her standard modus operandi, Akira and his siblings simply soldier on, with Akira doing the grocery shopping, laundry and setting the rules. A few months later Keiko returns, armed with presents and the news that she has to go away again, “for a long time”. That night she simply deserts her children.

Akira, played with quiet intensity by newcomer Yuya Yagira, (who won the best actor award last year at Cannes for his performance) rules the household with casual, unquestioned authority; for the most part, his siblings obey his often arbitrary rules. His affection for them and the seriousness with which he accepts his responsibilities make his often frantic days at once comic and painfully difficult to watch, for the director never fails to signal, with perfect attention to the mundane details of everyday life, that this quartet is headed for disaster.

Akira longs to make friends, ride a bicycle and play baseball, so he turns to petty theft to buy video games with which to lure neighborhood boys to the apartment. Kyoko, struggling to rationalize her desire to learn with the claustrophobic circumstances of her life, slowly retreats inward, spending more and more time alone in the apartment’s single closet. Akira entertains his two youngest siblings by planting seeds in milk cartons that are placed on the railing of their balcony to catch the sun. 

The money runs out fairly quickly of course; water and power are shut off and Akira finds himself bathing and doing a bit of laundry in the neighborhood park’s drinking fountain. Bluffing the landlord’s a bit easier; she’s uncomfortable pressing a child for money and too readily believes his lies about when his mother is going to return. Even the friendship of Saki, a shunned girl Akira’s age who attends a private school can’t ease the ache in these children’s hearts and the accidental launching of one of their pots from its perch on the balcony prefigures the loss which constitutes the movie’s climax. 

Koreeda’s screenplay provides his young actors with such a pitch perfect blend of normal childhood experiences and matter-of-fact dialogue that he’s able to create a world for Akira and his charges that’s simultaneously normal and agonizing; the quiet stoicism on display never appears forced or contrived, making the film’ denouement all the more heartbreaking. Even more astounding is the hermetically-sealed world the director creates for them; even though they live in one of the largest and most densely populated cities on earth, these children are as far removed from other human contact as the marooned prep-school boys in Lord of the Flies. The fact that Akira and his siblings behave with all of the normal drives of the subjects of that novel while demonstrating so little of their accompanying youthful barbarism only adds to Akira’s appeal and appalling vulnerability of the family he heads.

Nobody’s charms are as subtle as its carefully-presented characters, heroes who struggle to deal with a world they had no part in making and which makes no sense to them. With quiet dignity and fierce resilience, these children will steal your heart- -and then break it. 

The Verdict?  A small, perfectly detailed gem. If you miss it during its theatrical release, be sure to look for it on video or DVD. 

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus