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Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows: Watching the Children

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In Nobody Knows four children of different fathers ranging in age from 4 to 12 are abandoned in a Tokyo apartment for unpredictable periods while Keiko, their childish, pleasure-seeking mother, goes off with men. Since landlords won’t rent to mothers with very young children, Keiko presents Akira, the oldest, as her only child and sneaks the other three in, two of them inside suitcases. Thus, except for Akira, who buys groceries and cooks, the children have to stay indoors. Even the balcony is off-limits, except for the older girl Kyoko who is mother’s little laundress.

To show what children’s lives would be like with no adults around to nurture them, or simply to impose order, the director Hirokazu Kore-eda employs a shooting style made up of “edgy” choices–off-center framing, movement in and out of frame and focus, cutting before and after the beat, sequencing of scenes without familiar narrative logic. (The camerawork is by Yutaka Yamasaki, the editing by Kore-eda.) It’s a paradoxically quiet expressionistic technique, a virtuosic way to make the audience feel as if we were observing without intruding.

Kore-eda’s approach is like Gus Van Sant’s in Elephant. In Elephant, however, Van Sant was fighting against his material. You went in assuming he made the movie to explain the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and yet he was so concerned (and rightly) about merely dramatizing editorial banalities that he developed a technique to show what it must have felt like to be at the school that day not knowing what was coming, i.e., not knowing what someone would want to make a movie about. Van Sant’s technique–long, wandering, unbroken takes successively covering the same time without intercutting–was an interesting attempt to prevent his movie from having the center everyone expected it to have. (Unlike the Columbine shooting itself, it’s pretty much impossible to have a rote response to Elephant.)

By contrast, Kore-eda’s intention and style in Nobody Knows are more smoothly aligned. The point of his technique is to replicate with the inherently intrusive camera what day-to-day life is like for these kids whose plight “nobody” knows about. (It’s the opposite of reality TV which is documentary in the simplest sense of being non-fiction but can tell you only what people behave like when they do know the camera is on.)

At the same time, it would be a mistake to think of Nobody Knows as naturalistic. Kore-eda’s technique is actually a highly formal and intentional way of making everything feel unobserved, offhand, diffuse. It’s a fabulous technique: more consistently than in such great naturalistic works about the suffering of children as Vittorio De Sica’s The Children Are Watching Us and Shoeshine, René Clément’s Forbidden Games, and the first story in Satyajit Ray’s omnibus movie Two Daughters, you’re conscious of the visual and rhythmic correlatives for devastating neglect.

To add to the confusion, Kore-eda has directed the children beautifully in a naturalistic vein. In his hands the young actors effortlessly create distinctive characters; they never seem like they’ve been cued, the usual curse of children in movies. Akira (Yûya Yagira, who won best actor at Cannes in 2004 for this performance) is mother’s lieutenant when she’s away. He’s up to the challenge of taking care of the younger kids and preserving the family secret from the world but doesn’t see the conflict between these two responsibilities. He’s also old enough to know what he’s missing out on–the friendships with boys his age that would develop if he were allowed to go to school and play sports. Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) has a more limited awareness because she’s never allowed out. She doodles on the unpaid utility bills and toodles on a little red plastic piano, wishing she could go to school and take piano lessons. But she’s also alert to her mother’s evasions and fundamental unreasonableness. Precisely because of her more limited experience, Kyoko represents children’s inherent desire to develop their capacities by participating in the world.

Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) is an endlessly energetic boy who might not be aware of what they’re missing out on because he’s capable of turning everything into a game, providing the sound effects himself. Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the baby daughter, is naturally the most vulnerable and the most in need of her mother. On her birthday Akira takes her out for an expedition to the train station because she’s convinced it’s the day Keiko will return. Because it’s her birthday she gets to pick her shoes and Akira gallantly lets her wear the teddy bear sandals, despite the inconvenient fact that they squeak at every step. (Unable to sneak past her, Akira tells the landlady Yuki is a cousin just staying the night.)

At 140 minutes Nobody Knows is hard to recommend to a general audience solely on the basis of Kore-eda’s technique. (Elephant was 81 minutes–a reasonable ceiling for an experimental film.) If anything would put the movie over it’s the kids, in both the more casual and the more deliberate moments. The sight of Shigeru rubbing his head after his mother has cut his bangs too short, or the long shot of Yuki squeaking down the middle of the street on the way home from the train station, are irresistibly moving.

The kids wouldn’t come across so well without Kore-eda’s pseudo-objective technique; it’s plainly a huge plus, as he told IndieWire in this 4 February 2005 interview, that he had “three months to acclimate the children to the camera’s presence in their daily lives. To get them used to ignoring us.” All the same, though these are perhaps the least pukey kids in movie history they’re still “irresistible.” That is, Kore-eda presents them in a special way specifically to move us, even if his hand is invisible.

That applies to the incidents in the movie as well. I rarely had the feeling that I was seeing what would happen to an actual family of children abandoned in this way. For starters, they don’t fight among themselves, which I suppose you might explain by saying that their situation has made them precociously aware of their interdependence and so they wouldn’t risk fighting, but that isn’t made clear if it was Kore-eda’s intention. (Think of the more bustlingly believable scenes in the divorce drama Shoot the Moon in which the oldest daughter makes breakfast for her sisters before school and then gets mad and dumps it when they don’t appreciate her effort.) Kore-eda’s kids don’t even get sick and, until the very end, they don’t have accidents. Neither do they suffer in any way we could fail to sympathize with. They don’t have the vices of children as I remember them from my own childhood–they’re not selfish, whiney, aggressive. They’re purely victims of their mother.

It’s no more plausible that the people who become aware of what’s going on don’t intervene. In one scene the landlady stops in to ask about the unpaid rent and sees that Keiko lied about how many children she had when she moved in. Kyoko tells her Keiko is working in Osaka (249 miles away), which you’d think would be a bad answer, but as far as we know the landlady never comes back. To put it as simply as possible, there’s more drama in any child’s life, both internally and externally, than there is in the lives of the kids in Nobody Knows.

In the IndieWire interview, Kore-eda says he aimed to show “children’s incredible stamina and lust for life and vulnerability and complexity,” but most of his darts land on number 3. The kids’ lives are exposed to our gaze but what is revealed are four unstained souls, Rousseauian exemplars of childhood innocence. The narrative problem is that naturalism isn’t the best way to express ideals. (Isn’t the point of “candid” camerawork to capture the unideal behavior people engage in when they don’t know they’re being watched?)

Oliver Twist is also a pure soul lost in the bad big city; Nobody Knows is what Oliver Twist would be like if he ended up fending for himself in a London garret alone, and without drawing the attention of Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies or of Monks, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, and Bill Sikes, either. There’s a young cashier at a grocery store who feels for Akira, as Nancy felt for Oliver, but there are no major adversaries to protect him against. It doesn’t make sense for Kore-eda to present the children as allegorically pure if he’s not shaping the narrative as a romance in which the allegory can function. Pure souls have to be hindered, diverted, tempted, and then must struggle against and ultimately overcome the forces of evil, in order for their purity to have narrative impact.

By comparison, Gabriele Salvatores’s I’m Not Scared, which I think was the best movie that opened in the United States last year, expertly makes use of the elements of naturalism and romance in conjunction. I’m Not Scared more shrewdly begins by showing that children are very much prey to vice and then has the little boy protagonist lift himself above the vices of both his playmates and of all the adults around them by making a heroic effort to save a kidnaping victim. The movie is charged with naturalistic detail about brutally limited rural life, but it ideas about moral development in children become operative by means of the romance narrative.

In Nobody Knows, Kore-eda’s technique tells you that nobody’s watching these kids but you’re always aware of the director’s sympathy behind his aesthetically disciplined gaze. It’s that sympathy that returns and so gives meaning to Yuki’s uncomprehendingly pained eyes. Unfortunately, Kore-eda’s sympathy is less interesting than the situation that he has transformed to generate that sympathy. (The movie is based on an actual 1988 incident in Tokyo, but Kore-eda admits to IndieWire that the movie is “almost entirely fiction.”)

Something similar happens in Kore-eda’s After Life (1999), the ingenious premise of which is that the dead are allowed to take a single memory with them to the next world. To determine which memory they’ll keep, bureaucrats spend a week interviewing them; once the memory is selected a recreation is filmed that will play in place of the living memory of the actual event. It’s not at all a cynical vision: the bureaucrats, dead men and women themselves, are competent and sensitive. With an easy prospect, like the old woman Kimiko Tatara, they may get right to her memory of a formal dance she performed for her adored older brother. A tougher prospect may have to view years and years of videotaped experience before making a decision. (Anyone who can’t, or refuses to, select a memory becomes an interviewer.)

In After Life Kore-eda’s technique is subjected to the rigors of the premise–the interviewers work against a deadline and each character presents a plot arc with a pre-defined endpoint. At its best moments the premise is also purified by the technique. The scene in which the old lady teaches the dance to the little girl playing her at the age she was at the time, or of a man’s flight on a biplane, are both “nifty” and amazingly unforced. When his instincts are just right, Kore-eda has both the perfect technique and the perfect touch for suggesting (without explicitly defining) the immanence of human experience.

But again, while the technique in After Life may always be naturalistic the content isn’t, and not just because it’s a fantasy about posthumous existence. The game is given away in the stories of the schoolgirl who first chooses a trip to Disneyland as her memory and of an older man who boasts about his extramarital sexual conquests. A young female interviewer delicately steers the girl toward a more individual memory while the cheating husband on his own ends up picking a domestic moment. When you hear these outcomes you realize that despite the seemingly objective technique, somebody–Kore-eda–is most definitely watching and judging and shaping, and what he’s coming up with isn’t very different from the liberal consensus of most blandly uplifting Hollywood movies. If Hollypeckerwoods remake After Life they’ll no doubt use a pizzazzier technique but they won’t have to change the attitudes nearly as much.

By comparison to almost any movie about children, Nobody Knows is so low-keyed that the soft attitude may be less obvious than in After Life. Kore-eda doesn’t have to push because there’s no question about what we’ll feel for these kids. But after the third or fourth reprise of the plinky-plaintive music, I began to think that his approach sits right on that razor’s edge between recognizable style and shtick. This thought was the gateway to feeling that his failure either to imagine the subject matter more thoroughly in a naturalistic vein or to tie it all up in a romance narrative seriously limits what he can accomplish with his technique.

You’s performance as the thoughtless, simpering Keiko offers a good beginning for both naturalism and romance. We’ve seen selfish mothers feigned by Cher, Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon and the like, but the Hollywood diva is always looking for something in the nature of approval or sympathy. (Ironically, they can’t play selfish mothers because they’re too concerned about their public images.) With Keiko, Kore-eda suspends judgment to the extent that you can watch You’s demonic infantilism without having your emotions distorted by your natural anger. Kore-eda doesn’t get the full comedy out of the scenes in which Keiko tries to convince her grave, practical older children that they don’t want to go to school, but he does enable us to see more than we might if we were confronted by such a personality in life or read about her in the newspaper.

Keiko may be seen coolly but You’s line readings are highly stylized. At times she sounds like the witch in Hänsel und Gretel, a comic enchantress holding the children captive. You has been in only a few movies but she’s more effective in this vein than that theatrical veteran Irene Worth as the grandmother in Lost in Yonkers. But although Akira holds things together as magically as a child in a fable, Kore-eda doesn’t do anything with these possibilities.

Kore-eda shot the movie in chronological order through four seasons from a script that changed every day. That’s great for the movie’s feel but bordering on a disaster for its structure. His accretive method simply isn’t the most effective way to tell this story, which becomes randomly episodic as it goes on and on.

To start at the top of the list of missed opportunities, Akira can’t be a full-fledged protagonist because his “responsibility” is conceived entirely in terms of Keiko’s fault for imposing it on him. There’s no tragic sense that if Akira weren’t such a good boy, if he said to hell with it and let the haywire snap, they might be better off. (Akira tells the cashier that they were once separated by child aid services and that was a mess, but it’s hard to say separation would be worse than what finally happens.)

You might also think that Akira displays a maladaptation many of us retain after childhood, clinging to what’s familiar even when it isn’t satisfactory. But without narrative structure, what you feel for these kids, and what you think of their situation and their reactions to it, can’t rise to a very complicated level of drama. You feel bad for Akira, but you feel bad for the mistreated kids you read about in the paper; there should be greater dramatic payoff from the kind of access this movie affords us. I’m not sure Nobody Knows elicits more complex reactions from us than if Keiko had abandoned four dogs in the apartment. (Dogs are even more dependent and even less comprehending, after all.)

The most dramatically engaging part of the movie is watching the older children react to their mother–you can see them trying to be obedient and yet figure out how to get what they want. They’re preternaturally good at reading her but too young to understand they have every right to escape from her screwy world; they’ve become experts at a horribly unnecessary skill. Once Keiko decamps for good, however, all that’s left is the special pathos of childhood due to the fact that children have the capacity for suffering without the power to end it or even the consolation of understanding it.

Kore-eda then wraps the movie up with a sequence in which the children have a weirdly affectless reaction to a horrible household mishap. This doesn’t even make the most of the pathos the movie has generated up to that point, but rather throws it away for a more anomic vibe. You could say that the point is that the children have become so conditioned to their life that they stop having natural feelings, but that isn’t what we otherwise see and the lack of dramatic structure prevents Kore-eda from locking it in, in any case.

The end of the movie seems like the corner Kore-eda backs himself into by shooting without a script. He gets about as much out of his semi-improvisational method as a director could, but style isn’t everything, especially if your ambition isn’t complex enough for your style. (Also a problem in a movie like Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas.) The movie starts out feeling scrupulous and focused but becomes increasingly listless until the bizarrely decompressed ending. Kore-eda simplifies the material without shaping a story according to the forms that give simple emotional material the most force. At times Nobody Knows provides intense pathos, but given the children’s situation intense pathos isn’t that big an achievement.

Click here for a more impressionistic statement of Kore-eda’s intentions and methods.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is the author of What We Do Best: American Movie Comedies of the 1990s and Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

About Alan Dale

  • Aaman

    Phenomenal review – the film can also be seen as a paean to cities – silent, brooding, a main character in the film itself.

  • Alan Dale

    Thanks. An interesting idea about the city. It’s sort of like nature: abundant but indifferent to your survival.

    I meant to comment on something you said in the Million Dollar Baby thread, but the static got too loud.

    You wrote with respect to structuralism: “The old ‘there are only six stories, and seven characters’ argument – a terrifying thought to any writer, if true.”

    First, I’d say that no critical idea is “true.” They’re just ways of organizing your thoughts and reactions to the primary material. And all ideas, all distinctions, break down at the edges (e.g., the distinction b/w periods, novels and romance, prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction). Some break down at the center! The odd thing to me about the Million Dollar Baby hubbub was that I was essentially being called a pretentious, know-it-all prick by people who were insisting there’s a right way and a wrong way to practice criticism, which I would never dream of saying. Criticism is just a way of prolonging the pleasure of the primary work it addresses–to each his own. (And don’t get me started on the worthlessness of arguments ad hominem.)

    Second, structuralism radically reduces the number of genres but not characters. I love applying to random works Northrop Frye’s idea that there are only four planes of action in fiction–heaven, the earthly paradise, earth, and hell–and all storytelling involves either descent or ascent from one level to another. But even if you accept this as a premise, character, which seems to derive essentially from allegory, that is, from the personification of human virtues and vices, is far from being as limited.

    Thanks again for the comment.