In "Nobody Knows" Hirokazu Kore-eda's ("After Life," 1998) new film based on a true story, twelve year-old Akiro assumes the parent role to his two sisters and brother when their mother leaves them. Akiro's siblings are not allowed to leave their small Tokyo apartment or even be seen because the landlord doesn't know about them and they could be evicted.
The mother, Keiko (played by Japanese TV star, You) leaves a note with some money for Akiro saying she will be gone for a while, and leaves for weeks. While she is gone the two oldest children dutifully continue their housekeeping routines and the younger children quietly amuse themselves with playing and drawing. The children are all kind to each other. Their mother pops back in but soon leaves again saying she'll be back for Christmas, but she never returns.
Akiro adapts to his mother peculiar, erratic behavior with his increasingly compliant and responsible behavior. It's as if he thinks that if he is just good enough his mother will change and come back to take care of him. Like all children of mentally ill and neglectful parents, it's all they know, and they learn to adjust to their reality.
Kore-eda nails the character and the family dynamics. The mother looks like she is barely past her teens. She doesn't seem to have a care in the world and has a blissful ignorance of her adorable children's basic emotional and physical needs. She speaks with a lilting, babyish voice with a saucy tone which gives clues about the way she relates to the world, her internal conflicts, and her unmet early needs.
Keiko thinks her children are cute and amusing. When she comes home drunk early one morning, she wakes them up and has fun playing with them. But, when she wants to spend time with her new boyfriend, she easily leaves the children for weeks at a time. The mother has a string of unstable relationships and chooses men who aren't good for her. All four of her children have different fathers. None of the children have ever attended school. Almost everything Keiko does is in the service of what is good for her. She isn't able to transcend herself and empathize with the children she brought into the world. In a pivotal scene in which Akiro confronts his mother she is surprised and asks, "I'm not allowed to be happy?"
The children never stop longing for their mother. When the children realize that she's not coming back, Akiro transforms into a de facto parent figure, starting discussions at the dinner table and fretting over utility bills. At one point his social activities distract him, but he gets back on track.
As the world bears down on Akiro, Kore-eda uses tight shots to reveal his intensity and valiant effort. When Akiro goes in the street to do errands, wide shots remind us of how diminutive and helpless he is in the big world. When the children finally leave the apartment after several months, Kore-eda uses bright light to signify unbearable freedom. The plants the children grow from seeds on their veranda represent hope and the nurturing they long for from their mother. Most of the scenes in this 2-1/2 hour film linger a at least a couple of beats too long; it's hard to know Kore-eda's purpose for this; but perhaps that is part of why "Nobody Knows" lingers in my mind.
In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield for Movie Magazine.
© 2005 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 2/16/05
Japan/2004/Japanese with English subtitles/141 minutes