Angry and Compassionate
Call Nobody Knows “realistic” or “slice of life” and you’ll be missing the thrust of Koreeda Hirokazu’s film. The movie has all the qualities of such a picture, in its images evoking Edward Yang’s lyrical eye for the mundane – multiple mealtime scenes, for instance, or a stroll through the market, often shot in intimate close-up or from afar with doorways or trees artfully obstructing our view. But prefacing all this is an extraordinary outrage that sets the tone for the rest of the film, revealing that this fact-based fable is not merely humanistic, sad, or even tragic. It is angry.
Heed the film’s opening image before it flits by, for it is contextualized powerfully later on. But before we get there – or rather, you get there, for there will be no spoilers given in this review – the film presents to us a true-life scenario that lends credence to the adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” The movie begins with a single mother moving into an apartment with her 12-year-old son, Akira (Yûya Yagira). Understandably, they have a lot of stuff with them, but the luggage seems strangely heavy. Suddenly – zip! – the bags are opened, and out tumble three kids – Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), in descending order of age; a third, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), will be arriving by train later that evening. The moment is like the rooftop, man-from-a-suitcase scene in Oldboy, an appropriate comparison since Nobody Knows nearly rivals that film in bleakness.
Right away, things feel off, not least because the kids could have suffocated in those coffin-like bags. That said, we feel a touch of sympathy for the mother, because we suspect her decision to sneak in three additional tenants occurred under financial pressure. She is, after all, a single parent of four. Her children are a charming bunch, with Akira clearly the older brother; Shigeru a quiet girl and a dreamer; Kyoko the born troublemaker; and Yuki the embodiment of kawaii. Still, they are probably legion when together, so I could, at this point, sympathize with the mother’s behavior. Then she leaves. First just during the day, and the kids manage well on their own. Then for a whole week. Then an entire month. Then indefinitely. Prior to leaving, she had set ground rules – no loud noises, no walking out on the balcony – so the children, with the exception of Akira, have in effect become prisoners in their new home. The money she mails to them only further highlights her negligence.
It was at this point that the sense of dread began settling in. I had felt bouts of unease before, as when the mother came home late, smelling of booze, or when, after a time away, she barged through the front door with an armful of presents – essentially peace offerings to her children for her flagrant absences – claiming that she had been away for “work”. The film shows us these slippages in her thin, loving-mother facade, placing us in the children’s shoes, especially those of the attentive Akira. It’s true, the movie doesn’t give us her perspective, so in a way the case it builds against her – through presenting both accumulating instances of poor parenthood and accumulating images of its repercussions – is one-sided (there is one exception: a brief moment where we see the mother crying silently when she thinks her children are asleep). In another film, a more even-handed view might have been appropriate, especially if the mother’s redemption is the desired goal. But Nobody Knows is not about redemption but indignation, and its anger is well-placed. It isn’t so much disregarding the mother’s humanity as reducing her so that she is more or less defined by her abandonment of her children; by vilifying this simplified character, the film vilifies the true-life action of abandonment she represents.
So what about that “realism,” that “slice of life?” I ask this – how does one go on living normally, “mundanely,” as a child abandoned in a new neighborhood, faced with the need to pay for gas, electricity, and water; to care for the physical and emotional needs of three siblings; to himself remain sane and hopeful? One can’t, not entirely anyway, and yet the film shows the children attaining a kind of normalcy despite their state of neglect. The effect of this normalizing of the abnormal reminded me, strangely enough, of Kafka’s The Metamorphoses, which tells an extraordinary story – a man has turned into a cockroach – using level-headed prose. The stoicism of the language stands in such ironic contrast to the astonishing nature of the events that our astonishment is made greater still, so apparently dissonant are our feelings to that of the narrator’s. In Nobody Knows, the cockroach is the mother’s abandonment, the calm writing the cinematic aesthetic of the prosaic, that is, the posture of realism. The film tracks the day-by-day activities of the kids. They eat, talk, play. They even appear to have fun. Such seeming (non)events are the raw materials of the quotidian, and the film tempts us to be caught up in its predictable rhythm.
Then we remember the predicament the children are in, and our enchantment with the everyday reverts back to nauseating apprehension about what will happen to these kids. Our astonishment is thus heightened by the contrast between subject and aesthetic, our outrage thus doubled. Nobody Knows insists that we don’t forget the source of the children’s suffering, and in this sense, the film is perhaps more overtly constructed than other “realistic” movies of its kind. In lieu of school, to which the mother presumably cannot afford to send her kids, Akira is shown to dutifully practice arithmetic every night by subtracting his and his siblings’ daily expenditure from the measly sum of money his mother gave him. The film emphasizes this recurring action, which is loaded with pathos – Koreeda wants us to see that, in both wealth and education, the children are lacking. Similarly emphatic moments abound, as when Shigeru and Akira actually voice the idea of schooling, for the benefit of both the mom’s deaf ears and the viewer’s sympathetic ones. Or when the children, unable to pay the water bill, are forced to bathe in a public park, and there is a wide shot in which we see them all together, dressed in rags and caked in dirt.
In its deliberate appeal to the emotions, Nobody Knows sometimes feels slightly manipulative, except this could simply be what happens when anger turns to art as its outlet. The film wants us to understand its viewpoint, and so it appropriates the universal cornerstones of a strong argument for its own use: logic and feeling. The logic is simple, conveyed through the cause-and-effect progression of the narrative: when the mother leaves, the children suffer. Feeling enters when the film examines in detail the forms this suffering takes. If there is one manipulation that feels less forgivable, it involves a subplot depicting Akira’s descent into delinquency. Granted, bad parenting does have far-reaching consequences for children, but the film’s treatment of this subject is heavy-handed, not least because Akira is introduced as something of a saint. His gentle demeanor and close rapport with his siblings make him instantly likable, and his precocity seems designed to break our hearts. When he is pushed by circumstance into committing a criminal act, the film is so obviously thematizing the loss of innocence that the scene loses much of its power.
Nevertheless, Yagira, as Akira, deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 2004 (he was just 14). Despite the melodrama of the aforementioned subplot, Yagira deals primarily in subtleties, not histrionics. His acting is so subtle, in fact, that it is nearly imperceptible – sometimes, I detected an emotion from the character without knowing how or why I was detecting it. Some of what I perceived as emanating from Yagira was probably more the result of my inference rather than his performance – if a child’s mother leaves home unexpectedly for a month, one expects him to be angry, sad, confused, and bitter, so I might have read some of these emotions into Yagira’s stoic performance – but still, he does more here with downcast eyes and minute shifts in intonation than most professional actors twice his age do with any number of films.
At the close of Nobody Knows, this performance stands out, but it doesn’t stand alone. In its expressiveness, it belongs to the film’s larger intention of responding to its own title. A news headline may read, “Children Found Abandoned in Apartment,” but the details remain unknown, the victims merely faceless subjects in a shocking story. Nobody Knows wants everyone to know, not just the logistics of what happened – the media took care of that when the actual incident occurred in the late 1980s – but just how harrowing the experience of abandonment must have been for the children involved. It fleshes out its subjects back into people and confronts us not with facts but with the kind of emotional truth achievable only through cinema. Cinema shows us what we can’t otherwise see, and in this I am reminded of Edward Yang once more: the little boy with the camera in Yang’s Yi Yi photographs the backs of people’s heads then shows them the pictures. His action is a metaphor for what the film does as a whole: Yi Yi shows us sides of people and society we don’t have access to in our everyday lives. Nobody Knows is smaller in scope, but its heart is in line with Yi Yi’s, its filmmaking similarly compassionate.