Monday, January 29, 2007


by Ed Saludes

Film: Nobody Knows
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Country of Origin: Japan

In 1998, four children were found living by themselves in a small apartment in Japan. Best known as the "Affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo", it caught the attention of the Japanese and international media and made headlines all over the world.

Sixteen years later, a film was made by Hirokazu Kore-eda based on the said event. Thought the plot is based on the actual event that happened, the filmmaker informs the viewers in the opening credits that the film is not a retelling of what transpired to the four children when they were left by theeir mother for 9 months but an interpretation of what he saw on TV and read in the newspapers.

A mother (a TV host named 'You') of four moves into a new apartment with his eldest son, Akira (Yayi Yugira). The new apartment only allows one child so she smuggles her three other kids. She is afraid of attention and eviction and clearly, she has done this before with the way she smuggled the two youngest children (stuffed in suitcases and made to believe that it was just a game). Soon, the films exposes that all of her children were sired by different fathers.

The children are reminded to stay out of sight. Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), the elder girl must do the laundry at night when no one is around. Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the little ones, must learn to curb their outbursts. Akira, the oldest son, is tasked to do the shopping.

Not so long enough, their mother disappears. She comes back once or twice and essentially, Akira becomes the head of the household. He has to depend on the cash her mother sends him.

Before her mother's long disappearance, Akira confronts her mother. Keiko, the mother, protests and asks her son, "Am I not allowed to be happy?" Akira also asks her why they are not in school just like other regular kids in the neighborhood. In her breathy, childlike voice Keiko points out that even a famous Japanese wrestler and a Japanese president never attended school. She promises to come back for Christmas.

When the money stops coming, the children are left to forage for food and supplies. Week bleeds into weeks, month into months and the direness of the situation becomes clear.

With their utility bills unpaid, they lose their water and electricity. Eventually, they are forced to survive on their own. Most of the responsiblity falls on Akira. Forced to take the paternal role, he forages for free ramen from a local convenience store, cooks curry and finds alternative way to get free water - from a fountain in a local park.

The film took a year to make and spans a year in the children's struggle to stay afloat. Shot chronologically and quasi-documentary style, the film realistically depicted the physical changes of the children - Akira's voice becomes squeaky, his younger sister and brother grow few inches taller and Kyoko becomes a young lady.

Though the treatment is gentle and compelling, we can't deny that the film's central theme is about childhood trust being stretched until it snaps. Humanist filmmakers often use children and old people to test how vulnerable we are to the harrowing plights of humanity. Director Kore-eda belongs to that esteemed group of humanists like Ray and de Sica whose films send chills down our spines and break our heart and senses into melancholy.

The film works finely with its keen eye on small details. We see Akira choosing from a pile of dirty clothes to pick one which does not stink so as not to disappoint his crush. Later, you will see him holding the tin cap of the soda his date bought from the vendo machine. We see Kyoko's cuticles whose fading red ink denotes an impeded adolescene. We also see Shigeru carefully guarding the small plants he cultivates out of used ramen cups. His little garden thrives amidst the hunger its cultivator is suffering.

Then there's also the performances of the newbie actors. How the kids evoke so much emotions from their untrained thespic skills is a gift you often sees from previous child actors who populated the films of Ray and de Sica. Yayi Yugira, who plays Akira, bagged the 2004 top prize for acting in Cannes.

Kore-eda has been directing for two decades and has done close to ten films. Nobody Knows is his first film that I saw. But I think it suffices for me to say that Kore-eda is the most talented of contemporary Japanese directors.

Among the baby Ozus and Kurosawas bannering Japanese cinema, Kore-eda is the most truly gifted.

About the author
Ed Saludes is from Journals. He was a volunteer in the recently-concluded 8th Cinemanila and was a member of the production of the award-winning film Kubrador.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Impressive write up about this movie! Details are intricate and moving. Keep it up!