Nobody Knows begins with a mother and son moving into a new apartment somewhere in Tokyo — an ordinary scene, except that two of their suitcases seem to be…well, fidgeting. They contain two younger children, another daughter and son, who are being smuggled in against the landlord’s wishes. A fourth one, a second daughter, sneaks in after hours.
There is something terribly wrong here, of course, but one of the most remarkable things about Nobody Knows is that it’s told more or less seamlessly from the childrens’ points of view. What we would perceive as being out of kilter is for them simply the way their lives have always been lived. They see nothing wrong with packing their siblings into suitcases and smuggling them into their new home — mostly, as the film suggests, because their mother is able to make it seem like the most natural thing.
The oldest son, Akira (Yuya Yagira) is, as her mother says at the beginning of Nobody Knows, a “very mature child,” and it is his maturity that will be the saving grace of his family. There is something strangely blowsy and not-quite-all-there about his mother (pop singer You [rhymes with “Go”]); she reminds one of the equally off-center Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence. The children are for the most part cheerful and well-behaved: the youngest two are happy with toys and TV, while Akira and Kyoko (the older daughter) deal with the fact that their mother simply isn’t equipped to do her job.
Akira's mother is more like one of the kids than she is the leader of the family,
so it's no wonder Akira is soon the de facto father.
The days unfold in a pattern: Mother goes out and leaves Akira in charge. He does the cooking, the shopping, the housework — in short, all of the things she ought to be doing, but for some reason, is not. The children are not permitted to leave the apartment at all (save for Akira), out of the fear that they will once again be evicted. When Mom comes back, again, reeking of alcohol, it’s as if it was the most natural thing to be gone for hours on end without warning. She thinks of her children as roommates or play partners, not as responsibilities. And because the others are so young, they have never quite realized just how screwed up this arrangement is. Your family is…your family, after all. You only have one mother.
More problems arise. The children don’t go to school, not even when they ask to do so. “You wouldn’t have any fun at school,” she condescendingly tells Akira. Mom’s apparently found a man who will take care of all of them, but Akira has heard this story before, and knows what will come of it. One day she leaves a note that she’s “going away for a while” along with an envelope full of money. After counting the cash Akira presses his face against the window and stares at the other children playing in the lot below, and we can see in his face that he would trade places with any of them in an instant. He cannot just go out and play without neglecting the responsibility that has been unfairly placed on his shoulders.
Akira's grade-school arithmetic comes in handy to keep their meager budget balanced,
but what he really wants to do is go outside and play like any boy his age.
Akira does the best he can. He saves the receipts from the store, uses his grade-school arithmetic to track their budget, tries to keep all the household ducks in a row. He even tracks down one of the fathers in the family (Kenichi Endo), a pachinko-parlor maintenance man, who gives the boy a beer and talks to him, again, as if he were just one of the guys and not a son that needed care. “You’re broke? Hell, I’m broke, too,” he shrugs. “If you’ve got 10,000 yen, that’s enough.” (There is a funny/sad moment where this father adamantly insists that Yuki [the youngest] isn’t his kid: “I used a condom that time, I’m sure of it.”)
Because the movie is told from the childrens’ points of view, it leaves a great many things open-ended. How does the mother survive, for instance? By sponging off of other men? She has jewelry, a cellphone, an elaborate vanity, and the kids are at least well-supplied with distractions, but it’s plain the only real job she has is in appealing to whoever crosses her path. In another telling moment, when their mother returns home after being away for over a month, the only ones who run to greet her are the two little children who don’t know any better. Akira and Kyoko sit and look forlorn. They are too mature to be deluded by her, and we wonder if the reason their mother has abandoned them completely is because she cannot face up to the possibility of them someday becoming adults.
Within the confines of the apartment are a great many happy days, but even more lonely and sad ones.
The children find ways to cope with the endless days. Since Akira is the only one who can leave, he hooks up with a local circle of boys, and savors something like the pleasures of a real, ordinary childhood with them, until they try to recruit him in their shoplifting sprees. He cannot work, as he’s too young by several years. When their water and electricity are cut off, they draw pictures on the backs of the suspension notices, for lack of anything else to draw on. And there is a wonderful day where he and his brother and sisters go out at last and play, and then spend a forlorn moment staring at the schoolyard.
How did all this happen? There are, over time, vague hints of what went wrong — that each child was the product of a different father, that they have been collectively evicted time and again for various transgressions, and so on. But in the end these aren’t the details that matter: the movie is more interested in how the children manage to get by day by day, how they stave off boredom and resignation, and how they cope with the possibility that they have been simply thrown away like so much trash. When the water is shut off for non-payment, they fill buckets from the playground fountain, but they have no way to bring a father or a mother into their lives.
The older children act as parents to the younger ones where they can,
and Akira even manages to squeeze a little money out of one of their biological fathers.
The way their mother’s absence has left a hole in each of them manifests again and again. At one point Akira manages to track down his mother on the phone, but she answers with a different surname. He stares over at his siblings for a moment, then hangs up on her. Maybe trying to make her come back would be a mistake. Then, even more startlingly, he forges New Years’ gifts from her, so that the others will not feel quite so abandoned: he may be able to live without her, but can they? Later, Akira meets up with a girl slightly older than him, who becomes something of a surrogate caretaker for the group of them, but she’s still not their mother either.
There is a moment of terrible irony early in the film where a shopowner suspects Akira of theft. He drags the boy into his office, threatens to call the police. It wasn’t him, of course, but the irony is that if he had called the police, there might not have been quite as much suffering later. The children themselves seem to have such an ingrained distrust of authority that they never go to them for help on their own anyway. They don’t want to be separated from each other, and after having been with them for so long, we don’t want to see that happen either.
When water, electricity and gas are all cut off for non-payment,
Akira and the other children have to improvise as best they can.
Nobody Knows is full of excellent performances, the best by far being Yuya Yagira as Akira. He was a first-timer who had never acted before, but his performance is so affectless, so unstudied and so convincing that it’s no small wonder he won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2004, beating out even Choi Min-Sik’s incendiary acting in Oldboy. There are no big emotional moments for him, but rather the slow accumulation of little touches: Look at the way his face falls when his mother tells him he’s only going to get picked on if he goes to school.
The director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, was also responsible for the elegiac Maborosi (and the less effective Distance), but this is, I feel, his best film so far. In Maborosi, he shot everything at great distances or in the dark; Nobody Knows is more upfront and intimate, almost documentary-like. It’s set mostly in the cramped, trash-strewn apartment they share. The film was assembled over the course of a year in more or less exact chronological order; we can see the children growing and changing onscreen, eerily enough, which makes it all the more credible.
An older girl becomes something of a surrogate mother to them all, but Akira knows that it's too late.
The end may not satisfy most people, but this is not the sort of story that lends itself to any real sort of closure. It is about the drift of real life and not the unfolding of a premanufactured plot. There is one element near the end that could come off as forced — the death of a character and its aftermath — but it does not derail the film, and in fact complements the rest of it. And it does not do what so many other movies of this kind would be tempted to do: it does not give them a happy ending at the expense of knowing that any real children in their position would most likely never have one.