Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 24 February 2005
Source IFC Films 35mm print
The Japanese director, screenwriter and editor Kore-eda Hirokazu began his career making documentary shorts before moving on to direct the series of lyrical, visually intense feature films for which he is now known. And while his feature films would not be easily mistaken for documentaries, they nonetheless exhibit a passionate attention to the smallest details of action and mise-en-scene and are astonishingly patient in capturing the nuances of their characters. Kore-eda’s new film, Nobody Knows, exemplifies these aspects of the director’s style, tightly framing each movement of a child’s hand or face, or meditatively attending to an unexpected view from a window or a flower in the street.
All of this attention to detail, often photographed in precisely focused, extreme close-ups, evokes the perspectives of the children at the center of the film’s story. Based very loosely on an actual event, the film concerns four children whose single mother (herself rather child-like and irresponsible) abandons them in a Tokyo apartment for months on end. Leaving her oldest son, 12-year old Akira, in charge, the mother departs for an unspecified length of time, only occasionally sending money for rent and food.
Visually and narratively, Nobody Knows suggests the children’s view of the world, indistinctly rendering the passage of time and the contours of the world outside of the apartment to which they are mostly confined. As the children venture more and more into the surrounding neighborhoods of Tokyo, new settings and spaces appear, but the film primarily revisits the same locations: the park, the market, and of course, the tiny apartment.
In capturing the details of the children’s world that are both quotidian and lyrically beautiful, Kore-eda’s combination of documentary and romantic visual modes (and the leisurely pace of his editing) creates a quietly expressive cityscape. But these two impulses also create a tension in the film’s narrative, as the children sense both liberation and abandonment. In particular, Akira desires a normal life in which he can go to school and play baseball, and in which he does not have to work to help his siblings to survive. Like the characters in Kore-eda’s After Life, Akira exists in a kind of limbo, feeling the pressures of adult responsibility, but yearning for the securities and privileges of childhood. Similarly, the viewer is left in a state of limbo, eagerly wanting to share the child-like wonder and liberation of the experience, but perhaps incapable of suspending her concern for the children or her resentment at the mother’s selfishness. The effect is slowly disquieting and pitches the audience somewhere between nostalgia and exasperation.
But this frustration is successfully mitigated by the director’s characteristically even tone, and while the film, like all of Kore-eda’s work, toes a precarious line between humanism and mushiness, Nobody Knows never turns bathetic. Kore-eda’s only slight misstep is his choice of a horribly twee ballad (something about “a jewel with a pungent stench”) for the film’s climactic scene – although insofar as this song resembles a teenager’s performance at a school recital, perhaps it is weirdly appropriate.