Talking About “Nobody Knows” with A Magician of the Cinema, Hirokazu Kore-Eda
by Liza Bear
A magician of the cinema, Hirokazu Kore-Eda brings a human touch, a literary sensibility and documentary experience to bear in his fiction films that include “Mabarosi,” “Distance” and the exquisite celestial fantasy, “After Life.” The latest, “Nobody Knows” is based on a reported 1988 event in Tokyo — the Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo — in which four young children were left alone by their mother in a dilapidated apartment for six months with a pittance. Since they did not attend school no one knew of their existence. Using a low keyed, flexible approach to both script and directing, Kore-Eda achieves a wonderfully authentic portrait that’s as much about the children’s vivacity and resilience as a witness to the plight of abandonment. Working out of a minuscule apartment, it’s also an incredible technical achievement.
Fourteen-year-old Yuya Yagira won Best Actor award at Cannes 2004 for his moving performance as Akira, the eldest of the four children who acts in loco parentis and tries to keep a familial spirit inspite of sadly deteriorating conditions. I was happy to speak to Kore-Eda again for the first time since the release of “After Life” in 1999. “Nobody Knows” opens in New York today.
indieWIRE: Did “After Life” do well in Japan?
Hirokazu Kore-Eda: It wasn’t a huge release but a lot of people deeply appreciated it, like you, and say it’s their favorite movie.
iW: What does the title, “Nobody Knows,” refer to in Japanese?
HK: Well, literally to the kids who were abandoned and nobody really knew what happened to them. But I wasn’t interested so much in their plight as victims. What I wanted to show more was children’s incredible stamina and lust for life and vulnerability and complexity — that’s also an aspect of children that tends not to get acknowledged. And the vividness of children is easier to see when they’re completely left to their own devices.
iW: The story’s based on a real news event from 1988. How much did you develop the story from the newspaper description of the event?
HK: It’s almost entirely fiction. The barest bones, that four siblings with different fathers are abandoned by their same mother and spend six months alone-that much is the same. But everything from their ages to their genders to their personalities was invented.
iW: Directing children is a very special skill. I imagine you had a lot of preparation?
HK: After casting the film before we started shooting I had three months to acclimate the children to the camera’s presence in their daily lives. To get them used to ignoring us.
iW: Are they actors or non-actors?
HK: They all had talent agencies but none of them had acted before. Kan Hanae who played Saki, the older girl who befriends them, had been in Pistol Opera by Suzuki Seijun, but that was it.
iW: What were you looking for specifically?
HK: Well, first of all we had to be able to communicate. We were going to spend a year together, on and off. The other is a sense of presence, especially the strength of the gaze. And the combination was key-we had about ten final candidates, and we had to mix and match them to try to figure out the right balance.
iW: Had any of them been abandoned?
HK: No, they all came from relatively stable families.
iW: What was your own childhood like?
iW: What kind of normal?
HK: Pretty poor. My father was a soldier in World War II, and after the war he was forced into a labor camp in Siberia for three years. By the time he got back, the Japanese were suspicious of anyone who had spent time in Siberia, assuming they’d been brainwashed into being Communist. So it was very very hard for them to find work. So even by the time I came along, the financial situation in the family was pretty tight. But thanks to their efforts I graduated college.
iW: Why do you think child abandonment has become a big problem in Japan?
HK: Certainly there’s lots of reasons for it in Japan but I was interviewed by French and Italian journalists at Cannes who said it’s a daily event in their countries. As the Japanese family gets more and more atomized, grandparents don’t live with the nuclear family, so parents of children can’t consult with their own parents about how to raise their children and rely on that to help raise them. Aside from that, there’s the atomization of city life where you can’t ask the neighbors to look after the kids, as when I was growing up. So I think all the childrearing responsibilities fall on the mothers.
iW: The look of the film is very different from “After Life,” even though your wonderful cameraman, Yamazaki Yutaka, is the same.
HK: Yes. We used almost all natural lighting and he shot in Super 16, with the Aaton.
iW: You wanted that tight close-up look at details of the children, or was that out of necessity in a cramped apartment?
HK: Yes, I did, but also restrictions can make you be inventive.
iW: How did you get such great performances out of the children, Akira especially?
HK: Most of the credit should go to You, the woman who played Akira’s mother, and to the other children who played his siblings.
iW: But the drama builds through him, because as he gains his independence, there’s a trade-off, a sacrifice as he pays less attention to the other children.
HK: I don’t think Yagira was that conscious of acting. I never gave any of them a script. I didn’t know how the story was going to end. I’d go, okay, today we’re going to play some baseball. I just had them live moment by moment.
iW: Yes, but we feel he knows he’s responsible for his siblings. You’re saying then that the audience is projecting their own moral dilemma on to this character?
HK: Certainly he was aware that the situation had thrust him into that kind of responsibility. He wasn’t completely oblivious to the circumstances of the story.
iW: You wrote, produced, directed and edited this film, all yourself.
HK: I enjoy it so much it doesn’t seem like work! Though I didn’t line produce, I just raised all the money. I didn’t really try to take it on as a producer until recently, based on the success of “After Life” and “Distance.” Now I have Bandai and others as steady producers.
iW: Do you want to work with children again?
HK: I’d love to, not necessarily the same kids.
iW: In After Life you worked with very old people… Do you have children of your own?
HK: Not yet.
iW: Do you always write your own scripts?
HK: So far. I’m so entranced by what unfolds in front of the camera. It seems wonderfully out of my control… I let it affect the screenplay. If somebody’s alreay written a plot, I couldn’t make adjustments for the actors’ performances as we shoot, so it’s more satisfying to work from my own material. But if I find a novel that inspires me…
iW: So with “Nobody Knows,” did the story develop day by day?
HK: I had a script for each season, but it changed every day. All the storyboards were done.
iW: Do you know what your next film will be?
HK: It will be a period piece set in the Edo era, “Hana Yorimo Naho.”