Everybody Hurts: “Nobody Knows”
by Michael Koresky, with responses from Neal Block and Jeff Reichert
EDITORS NOTE: Because of indieWIRE’s extensive coverage of the Sundance Film Festival, we are publishing this week’s review later than usual.
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
Hirokazu Kore-eda‘s splendid, crushing new film “Nobody Knows” floats like a feather yet finally plunges like a dagger. It’s clear from its visuals and textures, as well as its heart-stopping freeze-frame closing shot, that Kore-eda saw more than a little bit of Truffaut when his idea for this film, gleaned from an infamous true story about a houseful of abandoned kids in Tokyo in the late Eighties, began to gestate some 15 years ago. Yet unlike other “400 Blows” homages, like Tsai Ming-liang‘s “What Time Is It There,” “Nobody Knows” isn’t infused with mere movie recall. Here, a seemingly minor anecdote blossoms into something more lovely and grand, yet also withers into something horribly real: as the film continues, the four little kids, left by their selfish mother to fend for themselves with dwindling cash funds, begin to stand in for a larger spiritual dispassion. Not since Shunji Iwai‘s wickedly underseen and neglected masterpiece “All About Lily Chou-Chou” has the soul of a lost generation been so agonizingly on display; yet here, the angst isn’t quite so gutturally expressed by its characters. These pre-adolescents, crawling their way through the subterranean depths of childhood, seem headed for an encroaching irreducible malaise. Kore-eda is simply planting the seeds of disillusionment.
That the director mostly manages to avoid flagrant sentiment at every turn (except for one pop song towards the end, a strikingly atonal choice) is somewhat of a miracle, especially considering the irresistible cherubs onscreen for the film’s entirety. Delicate, unshowy, tangible — the approach that Kore-eda uses to elicit such naturalistic, non-cloying performances from the youngsters seems all but an impossibility for an American filmmaker. The manner in which the kids are allowed to interact, the relationships they foster with one another, with their toys, their food, their apartment which will become their cell, is breathtakingly intimate and almost claustrophobically intense. 10 year-old Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), 7 year-old Shigeru (Kimura Hiei), and 5 year-old Yuki (Shimizu Momoko) share the connection one would expect to see between siblings, yet as each child is born of a different father, the tight bond they form is also out of necessity and desperation. Presiding over them all is the striking, soulful 12 year-old Akira (deserved best actor winner at Cannes 2004, Yagira Yuya), who in the course of the leisurely film, shot over 10 months, is allowed to age from grinning moppet to bitter youth‹his voice deepens, his black hair grows out to an unkempt tangle, his sense of responsibility intensifying with the changing of the seasons.
Kore-eda’s staggering artistic generosity manifests in every gesture: even before the mother has abandoned her children (before the Christmas holidays, no less), he depicts the woman as herself a lost child rather than a senseless monster. His choice of casting You, a well-known TV personality, musician, and magazine writer in Japan, in the part of the negligent parent, pays off magnificently — the youngest children are understandably seduced by the playful woman’s cooing, flattering, childlike demeanor. Kore-eda allows their spiritual drift to go mostly unspoken, letting a handful of unforgettably tactile moments speak for the whole: Kyoko fingering a dried-over puddle of her mother’s spilled red nail polish; Shigeru unfairly shoved aside by Akira’s new batch of videogame-hound pals; little Yuki, in long shot, holding Akira’s hand, walking the dotted line in the middle of a quiet Tokyo side street, her tiny shoes, fixed with rubber horns, squeaking and echoing in the empty, dark night.
It’s this overwhelming loneliness that might truly define this master filmmaker’s output, albeit a solitude that is felt not in Antonioni-derived framing or Bergmanesque confessionals but in naturalized settings and behavior. Both his “Maborosi” and, especially, “After Life,” exist within sequestered areas in which its characters can stave off unhappiness and detachment only for so long. Especially the latter, which finds a group of deceased individuals in a way station between life and death, instructed to recreate their happiest earthbound moments on film before passing on. Though some do indeed accomplish this, others are left with an eternal ache. In “Nobody Knows,” the kids are often buoyant, and rarely does Kore-eda fixate upon the great burden of their lives, letting it simply play out in a series of small, mundane moments that add up to an inexorable tragedy. The children the film is loosely based upon, coming as they did from different fathers, may as well have never existed in the eyes of the government: their births were never declared. Kore-eda’s mission then, unassuming yet vast in its implications, seems to be to use his camera to locate these children, discover their passions, their resilience, their faces, before they join the multitudes and again fade into obscurity.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
by Neal Block
Like many disaster movies, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows” uses its characters to symbolize both destructive ignorance and the hopeful potential for survival. And yet like very few of these movies, “Nobody Knows” takes as its central disaster a familial abandonment rather than an asteroid or a tidal wave. The events are no less cataclysmic because of this smaller scale. A mother abandons her four children for a lover, leaving the eldest boy, Akira, to feed, clothe, protect, and sustain his siblings. The disaster expands slowly over the film’s nearly two and a half hours, like a slow-motion mushroom cloud, as money runs out, food becomes scarce, clothing ripped and ragged, and the promise of their mother’s return a memory. Families are born amidst ash and rubble in these films — disparate, desperate people entrusting one another, like the black cop and the hillbilly mall security guard working together to fight zombies, or the two cute teenagers on opposing debate squads who finally put aside their differences for the good of humanity. The same maturity is born in “Nobody Knows,” as the kids meet disappointment and trouble with saddening frequency and confront it not with go-get-’em exuberance, but with a learned resilience that must be employed in order for them to soldier on and stay together. They were simply family before; they’re a family now.
At the end, there’s no Bruce Willis to save them, no Dennis Quaid to snowshoe towards them through the arctic storm of their collective experience — just a hard world to continuously face, and only the new strength of their familial bond to help them face it.
[Neal Block is a co-founder of Reverse Shot, and a contributing editor of neumu.com. He currently works as Director of Distribution at Palm Pictures.]
by Jeff Reichert
Finding a film as simple, honest, and emotionally overwhelming as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows” is such a rarity that the occasion truly warrants the kind of critical overload showered on 2004 favorites “Sideways” and “Million Dollar Baby.” (Hopefully it’ll receive half the accolades and half the audience of either.) The problem in writing about it lies in figuring out what’s left to say about a work so seamless that it almost short-circuits discussion. The kind of movie that leaves a viewer feeling, if not consciously thinking, “It should always be this easy, shouldn’t it?,” “Nobody Knows” is as complete a cinematic experience as you’re likely to find in the first quarter of any year, not that it’d never make that claim for itself. Completely self-effacing, like his main character, solely concerned with ensuring that every element is truly in its right place, Kore-eda, in a leisurely, but never lazy 144 minutes, has provided in “Nobody Knows” a sketchbook of a complete moral landscape that exists in a universe writ small, folded unnoticed into a corner of the one we adults inhabit and experience on a daily basis. Laden with the kind of core-deep weariness punctuated by whimsy that permeated “After-Life,” “Nobody Knows” is so subtle and casually elliptical that when tragedy finally strikes its makeshift community of abandoned children, you’re left unsure of exactly what’s transpired until the film becomes an elegy for the lost. Even then, Kore-eda ably balances his debts to his characters as a filmmaker with his debts to his audience as an artist; form follows function, and in “Nobody Knows”‘s many silences, viewers are given the freedom to realize how easily this story could have been completely, mawkishly mis-told, and wasn’t.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures and co-director of the Providence French Film Festival.]