Hirokazu Koreeda's latest film, Nobody Knows, with its "ripped straight from the tabloid headlines" theme is prime movie-of-the-week material. Four children, ranging in age from five to twelve, are left to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment after their mother abandons them. A thousand and one dire films could easily have been made from this premise, yet Koreeda manages to avoid every possible cliché and pitfall (and there are many) in his take on events that actually did occur back in 1988. Dubbed "The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo", it was a nationwide scandal that ended with events far more horrifying than Koreeda's fictionalized account.
Keiko (played by Japanese TV personality You) is a single mother with four children from different fathers. The film opens with her moving into a new apartment with her eldest son Akira (Cannes best actor winner Yuya Yagira). As it would be impossible for her to rent the place with four children, their presence can only be made after the movers leave, and this sequence is one of the films most memorable (and quite striking). Though the children are forced to live by You's strict set of rules -- no noise, no school, no going outside -- they make the best of it, as only young children can do. Keiko begins disappearing on a regular basis -- first for a night, then a few weeks, and eventually forever. In her absence, Akira must care for his siblings -- his sister Kyoko, just a year or two younger than Akira, and on the brink of adolescence, Shigeru, a rambunctious boy, and Yuki, his other sister, just five years old. Akira willingly accepts this responsibility, and his calm and patient demeanor is remarkable for a boy his age, as is his ultimate acceptance of the truth about their abandonment. Only once does he pass judgment on his mother, a comment that she simply ignores. Though dedicated to his siblings (he even buys presents, telling them they came from their mother), Akira occasionally seeks out normal childhood pleasures -- video games, playing baseball, making friends -- and it is these moments that give the film such a naturalistic quality.
The casting of You as the mother, with her childlike voice and expressions was clearly intentional. It's as if Koreeda wants us to reconsider how we think about her. While her real-life counterpart was branded a monster (and sent to prison), Koreeda chooses to portray her as almost a fifth child, thereby making her disappearance seem more like youthful irresponsibility than a calculated, heartless effort. This is a daring move -- other filmmakers would feel the need to lay blame and include many finger-wagging morality lessons, as well as the resulting punishment.
The film is mostly from the children's perspective, and Koreeda spends a fair amount of time on the mundane tasks the children repeat day after day, and there are many close-ups of little hands and feet fidgeting, standing on tiptoe to check on the washing machine, playing with nail polish, etc. It's a powerful effect that draws you in, yet it avoids sentimentality or playing up the sensationalism of the affair. In all of its 141 minutes, it never once slips into melodrama. The music might be a bit overdone at times, but fortunately it's kept to a minimum.
That the children (both in real life and in the film) are able to live alone in this apartment unnoticed for nearly a year is bewildering. Even when the kids begin freely coming and going in tattered, dirty clothes, the neighbors do nothing about it. Yet once again, Koreeda is not interested in passing judgment on a society that either turned a blind eye, or simply chose not to care. This film is strictly about the experience as lived by the children -- and it is for this reason that the film is so wonderful. While Yuya Yagira's win at Cannes might have been too extreme a gesture, his performance is one of those rare capturings of genuine childhood -- on par with Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows. Some have criticized the film (and Koreeda) for softening the real story, but just as Distant (his previous film, unreleased in the US) dealt with the after-effect of a fictionalized Aum Shirikyo attack, so is this film concerned not with a simple recreation of events, but an attempt at presenting the children as something other than victims. (Michael Atkinson refers to it as a film about the "fragile reality of childhood" -- a perfect description.)
Nobody Knows isn't always an easy film to watch -- as the seasons go by and the conditions worsen (the film was shot chronologically), it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to passively observe the inevitable downward spiral. Still, it's one that shouldn't be missed. Opens today in NYC. Click here for dates in other cities.