Nobody Knows Review

“Although this film was inspired by events that took place in Tokyo the details and characters portrayed are entirely fictional” - Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Fifteen years in the making, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows tells the tale of four abandoned children, which was inspired by a story that hit headlines in 1988 and became known as “Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo”. A mother of four had smuggled her children from apartment to apartment in Japan, due to the fact that three of them didn’t legally exist and each one had a different father. She eventually abandoned the children, leaving them with little money, which ended up lasting them for all of six months until they were taken into care after the youngest girl died in an accident while in a weakened state.

Kore-eda’s dream project took a long time to come about, with producers a little less willing to fund such a tale of tragedy, but his passion for the project and his heartfelt sincerity kept pushing him forward. The result we can finally now see and it’s a rewarding one in many respects.

Unlike the actual events the director chose to shoot Nobody Knows progressively over a twelve month period, allowing each season help to reflect the hardships of these poor young individuals and as such we also bare witness as each grows and changes considerably. Their clothing gradually tatters, while their skin becomes caked in dirt; a keen focus placed upon their appearance here with close-ups of faces and feet to highlight the awful situation. In addition we get the fabricated inclusion of schoolgirl Saki (Hanae Kan) - an outcast at school -who soon befriends Akira and serves Kore-eda’s narrative with a little more humanity.

Kore-eda chooses to place most of the story within the confines of the children's cramped apartment, which becomes grimier and more disorganised with each passing day. This brings us as close to the children as we can possibly get, while also placing emphasis on the extremities of having been been isolated from the bustling society surrounding them for so long. They’re forbidden to go anywhere by their child-like mother who smuggled three of them into the apartment in suitcases, in fear of them getting caught. Arguably one of the worst things a parent can do to a child is confine them to a room for such long periods of time, which the director addresses in a perfectly intimate climate. Boredom inevitably sets in; patience is tested, and when the opportunity presents itself kids will play. Inevitably, then, each child will find their way outside. First Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) curiously approaches the apartment balcony as Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) follows, while the more level-headed Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) tries to keep some kind of internal balance while coming to terms with the fact that her mother won’t return. But despite her maturity, it is Akira who undertakes the dual maternal/paternal figure, and Kore-eda takes us on his journey into the outside world where everybody is oblivious to his plight - save for a local seven-eleven clerk.

However, it would be unfair to lay any blame at Akira’s feet, seeing that he is currently going through a major transition in life - that of puberty. Later we witness his voice drop after Saki asks him whether or not he has a cold and these early signs sees him trying to act the part in his first step toward adulthood. In contrast his own mother doesn't seem to be able shed her own selfish childhood ideology: "can i not be happy?" she enquires in one scene when Akira confronts his mother over her disappearances. He soon finds himself faced by that very question once again, only this time it’s coming from himself. The open spaces express an almost tangible sense of cruelty for Akira, who must adjust to adult responsibilities with no prospects of any kind of social life; and this clearly takes its toll as he soon succumbs to temptation. Naturally he wants a normal life, to fit in with other children his own age and live his dream of playing Baseball. It isn’t until it’s too late that reality kicks in and he realises that all that play kept him away from his important but burdening responsibilities which would ultimately end in tragedy.

As a mother Keiko would seem loving toward her children; she eminates a deep amount of affection and playfulness, but there is an overall sense that she is far from mature enough to handle her situation. She is as child-like and oblivious as anyone else living in that apartment. Her mindset is clearly unorthodox, never will she think twice about leaving the children alone so that she can have fun or leave for days on end to scrape together cash so that they can keep their hunger at bay. There are questions that raise themselves with regards to human nature, which are never answered quite so directly during her on/off presence, but nonetheless Kore-eda makes sure to hammer home the severity of neglegence. It’s an addition to the story that Kore-eda would deem necessary and one can presume that Keiko’s simply unfit and unstable, even to the point that no matter how much we might detest her actions we find it difficult to truly hate her because of her pitiable nature. This can also be attributed to You’s wonderfully quirky performance. The popular television star and singer creates a character that is all surface; a kind of façade that gives her children false hope and yet she portrays sincerity as if to say that she means well through her actions. It’s such a contradictory performance, played so defiantly and more importantly believably that no matter how little is revealed she is never short of marvellous.

Kore-eda mentions that he intended to cast unknowns for the roles of the four children. Rather than actors per se they have no prior experience in the performing arts. Again a bold move and one that could have proved detrimental. Thankfully the decision is a perfect one that results in fine unison. The director takes an interesting approach to the film with his documentary skills, taking us close up to the situation and viewing it as a study, whereby he affords a certain amount of freedom to his performers, who despite following a script are able to add their own ideas to help forge an overall sense of reality. This gives us a very naturalistic quality that quite simply achieves some amazing stand-out moments from each of the members; from Kimura’s unpredictable behaviour and Kitaura’s quieted efforts to keep brave while she can’t even bond with her own mother, to Shimizu’s ever cute qualities. Unsurprising then that Yuga Yagira came away with “best actor” at Cannes 2004, for a performance upon which the narrative hinges itself. With these characters in place Kore-eda brings us a voyeuristic opportunity to see the lives of these children unfold within closed walls, maintaining a dark and depressing look that does little to signify any kind of hope.

It’s interesting then that there’s still time for comedy. Nobody Knows starts off brightly enough as we soon realise that there’s more to Keiko and Akira’s suitcases than meets the eye. The family unit is jovial and the moments that entail lie upon lie are often amusing. There’s even a great moment of dialogue when Akira goes to visit one of his mother’s ex’s. After giving Akira some money he leaves with the final words: “By the way, Yuki is not my kid. Every time I did it with your mum, I used a condom. By, then”.

All of this is fine, and the performances are uniformly brilliant; yet ultimately it lacks a certain amount of emotional leverage. The events we witness should be deeply moving, but despite many motifs and social comments littered throughout - not to mention the unfortunate loss of a lovable character - there isn’t anything genuinely affecting about Nobody Knows. This brings in question the relative lack of scoring. Conventional film making often utilises a soundtrack designed to stir emotions but as we witness in Nobody Knows this is an entirely underplayed element of the story that doesn’t manipulate the visuals that try to say what words or music can’t, but then this is an inevitable by-product of Kore-eda's docu-real style. As such there’s no tugging at the heart strings, often just a practical cold silence, presenting us with a harsh reality; one that leaves us speechless. That said, what there is is often cute and subtle and is no fault of composers Titi Matsumura and Gonzalez Mikami. Perhaps this reviewer is far too reliant on having his emotions manipulated in the traditional way; it’s worked in the past. Newcomers to Kore-eda’s harsh pseudo-documentary style may find the un-manipulative manner in which he presents the children's plight to be particularly cold and un-involving, even though there is no denying the tragic nature of its story.


ICA projects release Nobody Knows on a less than stellar disc. As many of you are aware there are choices of Japanese and Korean releases, both of which feature English subtitles and extras and I don’t doubt that bigger fans will already have ordered theirs. I can say that the choice is a wise one. This region 2 presentation is unlikely to hold its head high, especially with a high price tag such as this.

This is a bare bones affair that consists of a single menu with “play film” and “scene selections”. It’s disappointing that they’ve not gone the extra mile to provide something of worth. I’m sure some of the documented footage is fascinating but it’s something we’re denied.


The film is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is hardly exemplary, being consistently soft. Black levels are all over the place, lacking detail and compression is noticeably flawed. In addition the transfer is interlaced, which is unlikely to convince any purists to embrace it. Furthermore Edge Enhancement makes another starring appearance and the final nail in the coffin comes in the form of fixed (burnt in and not generated) subtitles that are far too large (although well timed and error free) and for this reviewer are a big no no in the world of digital media, no matter the country. As such it gets an extra mark down.

For audio we get a Japanese 2.0 stereo track that fares better. This isn’t a film with surrounds in mind and it doesn’t need them. Dialogue is crisp and the score is subtle. A lot of the visuals speak for the actions but when called upon it does the job adequately.


Nobody Knows is a wonderful little film that highlights many troubles and is clearly a passionate affair. Despite my minor reservations, which I don’t suppose can be considered important this has a lot going for it. If anything it shows us a harsh world and highlights such desperation that forces us to wonder what it must have been like for these children abandoned by the very person who brought them into the world.

Unfortunately ICA’s presentation leaves little to be desired and it's unlikely to gain much response from peoples’ wallets.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:08:54

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