The film opens with a mother and son moving into a small apartment with big bags of luggage. Once the land lords leave them to unpack, small children emerge from the suitcases. The mom is congratulating them like they won a game, acting silly while telling them they cannot leave the apartment or go outside. The younger children don’t see anything wrong with this at first, but the older boy Akira (Yuya Yagira) does.
That is the beginning of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, a long, sad tale of a young boy robbed of youth. Akira is that young boy, no more than 12, who takes care of his much younger sisters and brother after their mother abandons them when she “falls in love”. The mother tells her kids this before she leaves in hope they will be happy for her and encourage her. Instead, we get heartbreaking glimpses at all of their faces. They all agree she is selfish, and their kindness towards her is out of pity. Half of the time we see her on screen she is ridiculously drunk, and always wakes up the kids in the middle of the night to annoy them with her raving of a better life to come.
When the mother finally does leave, we as the viewer feel a sense of relief. Akira is good to his siblings, feeding them with the money his mother left behind, and we aren’t necessarily worried about the future at first. There is a gentle charm to Akira’s interaction with his siblings, and a funny scene involving him talking to his deadbeat father who refuses to admit one of the kids is actually his. The father is nowhere near as bad as the mom, because he never lies to Akira. The dad will not go there to look after them, but instead gives Akira his Taxi-driving money and short talks about puberty.
The adult presence in this film is scarce, and never harsh. When Akira is buying food at the grocery store, he is accused of stealing some magazines. Akira does not become irate when he is falsely accuses. Matter of fact, he sometimes looks like he wants this hide-and-seek to end and child services to step in. The manager soon finds out Akira is innocent, gives him some free food, and Akira sadly yet politely thanks him.
In the first half, Akira keeps everything afloat. From the clothes, to the sibling’s moral, to the bills, everything is alright at the moment. But as the film continues, not only do things crumble financially, but emotionally. Akira wants to have friends, but nobody will come over because of the stink of the apartment (“rotting” as one of them says). The small apartment is slowly piling up with garbage, dirty clothes, and a depressing sense of hopelessness.
Yuya Yagira, as Akira, is remarkable. He slips in and out of adulthood maturity and childlike confusion seamlessly and heartbreakingly. He works his ways out of a situation with the great echoes of Jean Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows. He is truly the best part of a film that really only has him. As well made of a film Nobody Knows is, it is an unbearable experience. Not because we watch every step of the downfall, but because it repeats itself with a lifelessness.
The 141 minute running time is used wisely when focused on Yagira, who holds a scene and our eyes greater than most veteran actors working today. Director Hirokazu Koreeda captured my sympathies and attention effortlessly, but repaid me with nothing to make the experience of watching it worth it. It may be a protest against conflict-neglecting storytelling, but it is hard to see that. It may be fragile and skillful on a level of Ozu, but it is far too dull for me to care. What I did care about is this family we fear will be broken apart, I couldn’t help but feel that was it’s only way of gripping me. With my primal fear for young, helpless children, of course I will be somewhat emotionally invested. I may be very wrong, but how can I know with all that is allotted?
Should this movie have been shorter or longer? Could it have been better? If you ask me, this is a story that is great as it is, but shouldn’t have been told. It is a great act of uncompromising filmmaking and acting, but nothing more and nothing less. Thanks for reading.
My rating: B