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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Nobody Knows (2004)

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Star: Yuyu Yagira

Played by an actor with the stunningly awesome name of You, who has a stunningly sexy baby voice, Keiko Fukishima moves into a new apartment. Her husband is apparently abroad, but that's just a story for the new landlord as she's really a single mother. She has with her a son, twelve year old Akira, but that's it, just the two of them. Well, officially there's only two of them. Inside her luggage however are another two children, Shigeru and Yuki, and there's another one, Kyoko, sneaking in by herself.

She sets the rules. No loud noises and no shouting, especially Shigeru who apparently made them move because of his tantrums. No going outside; Kyoko will have to sneak out to do the laundry, but that's the only exception. And because mum is often late home, Akira is in charge when she's not there. Now Akira is a pretty resourceful character to leave in charge: he does the shopping, the cooking, the dishes. He takes care of business. However he doesn't expect to have to take care of business forever, but that's how it works out.

And this seems a little strange. Keiko really seems to care for her kids and she has a solid rapport with them. The first thing she does when she gets home late is to help Akira with his elementary Japanese and they all seem very happy together. But she definitely has some funny ideas. The world only knows about one of her four kids, as the rest aren't just hiding from the landlord. None of them go to school, though at least a couple can read. They each have different fathers and we're led to believe that generally they don't even know that they have kids.

And then one day, she literally up and leaves. She leaves a note for Akira saying asking him to look after his siblings, and she leaves a stack of 10,000 yen notes. That isn't a lot in anyone else's money and however reliable he is, he's still twelve years old. He makes do, chasing down the kids fathers (or potential fathers) when he runs out, but he still only just makes it by the time mum arrives home. She's been gone a whole month, breezes in as if she's been gone for half an hour, drops off presents and promptly leaves again. She doesn't even make it back for Christmas and Akira has to fake New Year presents to them.

She says she's working, but we presume from moment one that it's really her new boyfriend, the serious one that one day she'll let know that she has kids. Eventually Akira figures it out too, by tracking down her work number from what looks like a wage slip, only to find out that she quit a month before. When he finally tracks her down by phone, she answers with a new name. And so the kids live their lives, with only Akira their connection with the world.

This is not a pleasant film but unlike most films that aren't pleasant it isn't a nasty sadistic piece of work. The nastiness is generally not in what we see but in what we don't see: namely parents, who aren't there for those who need them most. Akira has to be both parents to his three siblings and make do without any for himself. There's a lot of sacrifice here and, as you might expect, a lot of sadness, but there's a lot of charm too. We don't see much of Keiko and she acts so well when she's there that it's hard to hate her utterly until things get so out of hand we leave sadness behind and visit heartbreak. What we see are the kids, who find their way to live their lives on their own.

It's these kids who make this story work. Had they not been up to the task, this film would probably have sucked badly, but they're so charismatic that it's often hard not to grin. The subtle soundtrack helps this too, mostly just ambience and never overt. There's a lot of silence in this film and a lot of space too, to let the actors fill out the film by being the characters as the world happens around them. The other huge benefit is that these kids all make mistakes: as good as they are at doing their own thing, they're certainly not perfect, something that becomes more and more apparent as the film runs on.

It's easy for them to give up on chores if there's nobody there to make sure they get done. It's easy to break the rules when there's nobody to enforce them. It's easy to get behind on bills when you don't have any money. So they have to improvise solutions, come up with their own rules, find ways to do much with little or even something with nothing. But the real world has a way of making itself very apparent and these kids have to deal with adult responsibility even before they hit puberty. They even grew as actors during the film because it was shot chronologically over an entire year.

And they're so much fun to watch. Yuya Yagira is the best actor, even though he's a fourteen year old playing twelve. He gets so many emotions across effectively without apparently trying, appearing simultaneously capable but lost. He won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance, making an Oriental double, given that Maggie Cheung won Best Actress for her powerful showing in Clean. This was his first film, but he's made a few more since, his latest being a horror movie from Takashi Shimizu, maker of The Grudge. He's definitely a face to watch.

While Yagira's is the tour de force performance, nine year old Hiei Kimura is the most watchable, playing Shigeru. He's infectious and dynamic and obviously had fun making this film but that fun looks like it may well have come in half hour chunks. He'd be a great kid to play with but you'd probably want to send him home pretty soon. The girls are played by Ayu Kitaura (Kyoko) and Momoko Shimizu (Yuki), and they act well beyond their years, being twelve and seven respectively. They round out an excellent but hardly traditional cast.

It's hardly a traditional film either. There is absolutely nothing flash here whatsoever, not just no CGI but nothing even remotely close to a special effect. It isn't just that there are no car chases, no explosions, no giant robots, the closest we get to any sort of cinematic device is a shot late on where the brightness is turned up so much that everything fades into the white. Far from being a slick piece of cinematic art, it's able to be professional without professionals. There aren't any real actors in the film. There's hardly a soundtrack. Whole swathes of the film appear to be shot in natural light or a lack of it. And yet it's rivetting viewing, for over two hours and twenty minutes.

Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda deserves much praise, and I'll definitely be looking out for more of his work. I'd love to know the background to the film, what drove him to make it. Japan is a strange place, culturally, but I wasn't aware of a hidden part of society comprised entirely of abandoned children making their way as best they can. Apparently the first draft of the script was written a whole fifteen years before the film was made, suggesting that it's something close to his heart. I hope there's an English language interview out there somewhere on the web.

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