Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) is a fictionalisation of an infamous incident from 1988, whereby a mother left her four children – all born to different fathers and, with the possible exception of the eldest son, not registered at birth – to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment. Koreeda wrote a draft screenplay when the case was unfolding and sat on it for 15 years. The resulting film sits at the intersection between his early documentaries and documentary-inflected fictions, and the later, gentle family dramas which positioned him as heir to Yasujirō Ozu’s legacy. It also cemented Koreeda’s status as one of Japan’s greatest living filmmakers.
Nobody Knows belongs to a diverse subset of Japanese fiction about abandoned children, which spans decades. It includes, for example, Osamu Tezuka’s iconic manga series Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1952-1968), Ryū Murakami’s novel Coin Locker Babies (1995), and in cinema, films such as Ozu’s Record of a Tenement Gentleman (Nagaya shinshiroku, 1947), Yoshitarō Nomura’s The Demon (Kichiku, 1978) and Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro (Kikujirō no natsu, 1999). Images of Japanese children roaming alone in the city can be traced to narratives of war orphans: survivors of the atomic bombings and the American firebombing campaign of the mainland, or the hordes who were evacuated to the countryside and separated from their parents. The scale of the tragedy was such that the spectre of war would linger in child abandonment narratives in which war seemed to play no part. While this may also be true of Nobody Knows, war can no longer account for the plight of the children in the film. They aren’t victims of violent, or even economic, circumstances; they’re abandoned and struggle to survive in a prosperous and peaceful nation.
It would be easy to lay blame entirely on Keiko (played by singer and television personality You), the charming but irresponsible mother who leaves her children to pursue a new life with a new lover. But she’s no simple villain, and Koreeda suggests that her life has long been a struggle tipped against her. In an early scene, eldest son Akira (Yūya Yagira, winner of Best Actor at Cannes) watches her as she cries in her sleep, before she springs awake with the cheery demeanour that she’s taught herself to maintain for others. Keiko conceals the existence of her children from her lover, just as she conceals their existence from the landlord, landlady and neighbours. Necessarily so, it’s implied: it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a single mother with four children to find a place to rent, let alone find love. Tragically, Keiko will abandon the children she loves and is loved by, but the fathers of the children abandoned all of them long ago.
The modern Japanese society depicted in the film isn’t willing to accommodate an unconventional family like this one. When Akira is compelled to visit two men (who may or may not be the father of one of his half-siblings) at their workplaces to borrow money, he’s treated as a nuisance and kept hidden from colleagues. Sympathetic workers at the local convenience store learn of the children’s situation, but their intervention is limited to a suggestion that they contact child welfare (Akira declines, hinting at a previous experience that almost split the family) and clandestine donations of expired food. A wealthy middle-school girl that the children befriend never approaches her own family for assistance. When the landlady discovers the children sitting unsupervised in their filthy apartment, she appears to turn a blind eye. Most have good intentions, but none are willing or able to disturb the social structures in which their lives are entrenched. The tragedy of Nobody Knows is that everybody seems to know about the children but nobody knows what to do.
These broader societal reflections remain muted, however, in favour of the film’s resolute focus on the children’s experiences. From the outset, Koreeda instills everyday objects (suitcases, a toy piano, a pair of shoes) and actions (preparing food, filling the bathtub, pulling a light cord) with heightened significance, isolating them in ambiguous close-ups before their importance can be grasped. Some of these close-ups are used within a system of scene coverage to depict the ongoing narrative, while others exist independently of it, connecting with a complex network of images scattered throughout the film which relates the children’s experiences through repetition and poetic association. As the film progresses, many of the filmed objects are recycled – symbolically by Koreeda, literally by the children – and assume new functions once their initial ones are fulfilled. Empty bowls of Cup Noodles house plants, unpaid bills turn into sketch pads, a suitcase becomes a coffin. Objects and gestures are what linger long after the film ends, reverberating as symbols of resilience, resourcefulness, misfortune, dreams put on hold.
Koreeda applies a similar approach to locations. For example, he cuts repeatedly to a wide shot of an unremarkable suburban intersection, on which there’s a vending machine, a payphone and little else. At one point, Akira uses the phone to call his absent mother at her workplace and learns that she resigned a month earlier; it’s the first sure sign that she won’t be back. As he puts down the receiver and walks away, Koreeda abandons Akira within the shot, cutting out to the lifeless intersection which assumes apocalyptic undertones. Later, Akira passes through the same location at dusk, riding on the back of his new friend’s bike. This time, streetlights dot the frame, a family can be glimpsed through an apartment window, and a jaunty score accompanies the scene. The street corner is absorbed into a world of possibilities.
The lyrical progression of everyday images and sounds in Nobody Knows parallels that of the children’s lives: as their money dwindles and their living conditions deteriorate, their universe paradoxically expands. In their mother’s absence, they take liberties with the household rules she left behind and eventually come and go from the apartment as they please. They explore, discover sights and sounds, make and lose friends, and take new risks; they learn, as all children learn.
Some portions of this article appear in Kenta McGrath, “Abandon the Young in Tokyo: Yoshitaro Nomura’s The Demon and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows” in Children in World Cinema, Debbie Olson, ed. (Lexington MA: Lexington, forthcoming, 2017).
Nobody Knows/Dare mo shiranai (2004 Japan 141 mins)
Prod Co: Bandai Visual Prod: Hirokazu Koreeda Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda Phot: Yutaka Yamazaki Ed: Hirokazu Koreeda Prod Des: Toshihiro Isomi & Keiko Mitsumatsu Mus: Gontiti
Cast: Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You