Nobody Knows

on February 04, 2005 by Mark Keizer
In 1988, four Japanese children, all born of different fathers, were abandoned by their mother and forced to fend for themselves in a small Tokyo apartment. What's worse, their births were never declared, so they legally did not exist and subsequently they never went to school. The scandal became known as, appropriately enough, "The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo," and director Kore-eda Hirokazu uses this fascinating story as the basis of "Nobody Knows," which has landed a coveted spot In Competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. And while Kore-eda's approach is that of a subtle, painterly filmmaker, excessive length renders "Nobody Knows" lesser than the sum of its wonderful parts.

Keiko (Japanese TV star You) is a single mother moving into a new apartment with her 12-year-old son Akira (Yagira Yuya). The pair's luggage includes two suitcases containing adorable youngsters Shigeru (Kimura Hiei) and Yuki (Shimizu Momoko), smuggled into the apartment because Keiko is afraid the landlord will evict them if extra kids are discovered. After a fourth sibling (Kitura Ayu) is brought into the mix, Keiko lays out some bizarre ground rules: The kids are not allowed to make noise, nor go outside. And despite their protestations, they cannot enroll in school. One day, Keiko leaves behind some money and a note, claiming she must leave for a month to take a job out of town. She asks Akira to take charge of the household. Although Keiko does return for a short time and occasionally sends money, it's obvious that she is completely abandoning her children.

Kore-eda's sweet and sour creation should be marvelous and most of the time it is. Almost two-thirds of the film takes place in a cramped apartment, yet the audience never gets claustrophobic. Kore-eda shot the movie over the course of an entire year, so the kids age slightly over the course of the narrative. Additionally, the director never asks the kids to slavishly stick to the script. And once provided with motivation, they prove to be natural performers and ad-libbers. Yuya is especially grounded and determined as he tries to keep the family afloat by providing scraps from the local convenience store and getting handouts from his siblings' various deadbeat dads. And using a degree of restraint most Western directors just don't possess, Kore-eda never comments on anything any character does, including the mother who runs out on her four children. He simply follows Akira as he tries to keep the family together.

Visually, Kore-eda uses spare and beautifully composed shots that help the audience drink in the increasing hopelessness of the family's marginal existence. However, Kore-eda's documentary-style approach is part of the problem. The film is almost two-and-a-half hours, and when unspooled at the same pace, without any dramatic conflict or confrontations, it threatens to become a chore to sit through. While it is very Japanese to not show your emotions, it does stunt the film's impact. Moments of brightness, including the scene where Akira allows his three siblings to go outside, help keep the audience involved. Even the inevitable and tragic collapse of the family's fragile ecosystem is handled in the same manner, although it does lead to some winning touches, like the kids using overdue utility bills as drawing paper.

Even though "Nobody Knows" loses points for excessive length, Kore-eda is an artist masterfully in charge of what he wants to achieve. Starring Yagira Yuya, Kitaura Ayu, Kimura Hiei, Shimizu Momoko and You. Directed, written and produced by Kore-eda Hirokazu. An IFC release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements and some sexual references. Running time: 138 min

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