‘Nobody Knows’ About The Will to Survive

In this day and age, we live in a diverse, bittersweet society filled with opportunities and shortcomings, as well as successes and failures. It really is a dog-eat-dog world where ‘survival of the fittest’ embraces almost everyone’s lives.
But what if you’re not so fit to survive?
Do you just slowly wither away and disappear from the face of the Earth?
Or do you somehow fight against all odds and seize the day?
These questions, and much more, are asked, but few are answered in the simple yet powerful Japanese film, ‘Daremo Shiranai’ (‘Nobody Knows’).
Written, directed, edited, and produced by praised Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, the film chronicles the story of how four children must learn to rise against the extreme struggle and misfortune of the absence of a parent or guardian, throughout the year.
The film begins with four children: Akira (Yuuya Yagira), Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), who live a simple but happy life in a small, cramped apartment in Tokyo. They live with their mother, Keiko (You), who is usually at work but when she comes home after a long day, the four children, especially Akira, enjoy her company to the fullest.
Keiko may be the mother of the four kids but they all have different fathers, though they are all still very close to each other like real siblings. She also has some rules that the four must live by, such as they are not allowed to go outside, including the balcony, and they are not allowed to speak loudly.
The existence of all the children, except Akira, is unknown to the landlord in order to prevent a possible eviction of Keiko being a single mother to four children. The kids also don’t have any kind of school education, even though Akira and Kyoko desire to attend school very much.
One day, Keiko leaves behind a little money and a note for Akira, informing him that she’ll be away for a while and to please look after Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki.
In a state of disarray, due to their mother’s abandonment of them, the four children struggle to survive with the knowledge, skills and strengths they have.
Things start off fine for the children and Akira as they create new rules for themselves to live by while wishfully believing that their mother will come back home soon.
But things take a turn for the worse when they stop receiving money and their apartment utilities are shut off. Their chances of survival are slim but their incredible desire to live allow the children to become an even more close-knit family.
Akira eventually meets a girl who always lingers around the school and park. She is a dropout student named Saki (Hanae Kan), who grows a strong bond with Akira due to her shared feelings of despair and affection with him.
‘Nobody Knows’ was inspired by a true event called ‘The Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo,’ which occurred in 1988. The film’s story is almost identical to this stunning true story, but what the director Hirokazu Kore-eda wanted to reveal and express in this film wasn’t the negativity that the children may have experienced but the genuine love and joy that they must have shared inside their deteriorating home.
While the film overall concentrates on the four children, it primarily focuses on Akira and how he acts as a surrogate parent to the children. Despite his age, Akira must become a stronger guardian and person than his mother ever was.
This film was one of the officially selected feature films in competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival last year in France, where 14-year-old Yuuya Yagira won the Best Actor Award for his role as the passionate and determined Akira.
Because most of the film takes place in the apartment, the cinematography consists mainly of close-ups of the characters, their personal belongings and their environment. While these close-ups may evoke a sense of claustrophobia to some viewers, these close shots really express a strong sense of intimacy that the characters share.
But as time passes and the children become weary, long shots replace the close-ups, revealing the children’s loneliness and vulnerability. The film doesn’t put a strong emphasis on the screenplay, soundtrack or visuals, even though it performs well in all three.
The acting is top-notch as well, allowing the honesty and love of the children for each other to become more believable to the viewer.
‘Nobody Knows’ reminded me of Takeshi Kitano’s 1999 drama ‘Kikujiro’ because of the simplicity both films share.
The film also really reminded me of Isao Takahata’s 1988 Japanese animated epic ‘Hotaru no Haka’ (‘The Grave of the Fireflies’), because both films deal with the similar theme of striving to survive, under extreme conditions, without the presence of a parent.
Even though ‘Nobody Knows’ was a little slow-paced, which will turn off some people, it didn’t bother me too much since the slow-pacing allowed me as a viewer to understand how the children naturally cope with their struggles without growing depressed or completely overwhelmed with confusion.
Overall, I really enjoyed this small, simple movie, even though it was quite depressing at times. I know that tons of children all over the world live under similar conditions and because of this prior knowledge, I felt miserable for these four characters and really felt sympathetic toward their feelings and needs.
My recommendation: If you’re expecting another classic hit action, comedy, or horror film from Japan, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
But if you’re interested in watching, as well as understanding, a film inspired by a true story about how people can continue to live under dire circumstances while still remaining happy, hopeful and alive, then this special film is definitely worth a viewing.
IFC Films plans to release ‘Nobody Knows’ in select theaters on Feb. 11, 2005.