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Nobody Knows
The first time I watched Nobody Knows (aka Daremo Shiranai) was in late 2004, where the UK was fortunate enough to receive a limited theatrical run. Although I was aware of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, I had never actually seen any of his films so Nobody Knows allowed me to appreciate what this man had to offer. I had this prenotion that the film would be difficult to stomach, especially dealing with children abandonment, poverty and spanning well past the 2 hour mark. On the contrary, Nobody Knows is filled with happiness as well as sorrow and highlights hope in the midst of tragedy. Ultimately, this heart-achingly beautiful film is a vehicle for some of the most valuable lessons that we can learn from life.

Nobody Knows

Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest drama illustrates the lives of four young children in Tokyo, as they cope with abandonment from their mother. Keiko and her four children recently rent an apartment that has strict rules about young children moving in. Subsequently, Keiko introduces her eldest child Akira (a 12 year old boy) to the landlords and smuggles the remaining children in using suitcases. The children are remarkably well domesticated, having lived at home and denied the privilege of attending school. Due to the strict rules enforced by her landlords, the mother insists to her children that only Akira may leave the house – the rest of the children must always stay inside.

Eventually, the mother who has multiple relationships with various men and quite often returns home reeking of alcohol, abandons the children but leaves them some money to fend for themselves in a harshly desolate world.

Director Hirokazu Koreeda has an extensive background in documentary filmmaking and has investigated into the problem of children coping with abandonment. However, despite its appearance, Nobody Knows is not a documentary. It is a fictional story that reflects on a wide problem in Japan that quite sadly, many people choose to neglect. Nobody Knows is filmed in a uniquely fascinating manner, a camera follows the events of the children (primarily Akira, the eldest) from a completely neutral stance, never judging whether the actions of the characters are right or wrong. It is almost as if the viewer is peeking into these children’s world through a window to get an experience of what it must be like to face those bitter conditions.

The story is undeniably heart-aching; Akira’s situation is incredibly painful – having to look after three siblings without the guidance of a mother. With their money, electricity and water supply running out, the children have to resort to washing in public fountains and scavenging for food. Again due to the way it is filmed, there is tremendous sense of guilt to be felt because the children are so helpless and nobody is doing anything to aid their basic needs. However at the same time, there are sudden bursts of pleasure that consequentially lead to some of the film’s darkest moments. The children reveal their interests; the adorable Yuki loves to concentrate on her portraits and Kyoko wishes to learn the piano. It further emphasises the children’s potential going to waste. In one scene, a frustrated Akira impresses new friends by purchasing an expensive video game. In a way, who could blame him? After all, he is only a child and as domesticated and mature as he is, Akira still has a lot to learn that only a mother can teach.

Nobody Knows

There are inevitable parallels to be made with Grave of the Fireflies, another excellent film exploring similar themes, however Nobody Knows is arguably more unbearable in terms of expressing the struggling of innocent children. Perhaps the naïve will assume that the terrible events of Grave of the Fireflies occurred in a period long gone. Conversely, Nobody Knows reminds the viewer of the vast amount of suffering that very much occurs today but is tragically ignored.

Koreeda ultimately leaves the audience to derive their own conclusions as to who is to blame. The mother’s actions, as horrific as they may seem, do not necessarily make her a bad person; Keiko is openly warm with all her children and behaves as any mother should, even when her children do something wrong. The answer is that society played a predominant role in shaping the outcome of these children’s lives. Anyone who came into contact with Akira and watched in silence as the siblings face poverty is directly responsible for their fates. Children rarely have a voice to express their needs so if everyone is too non-observant to help them then who will?

The film is remarkably long, lasting 141 minutes but never drags. The pacing is beautifully slow, taking its time to illustrate the delicate situation and often random background objects are given the primary focus of attention. I believe Yasujiro Ozu applied a similar technique in his movies, quite often the viewer would witness a scene, then an unimportant object such as a tree flowing in the wind or smoke escaping a chimney would be highlighted – allowing the audience to savour what had just happened – before moving onto the next scene. In Nobody Knows, certain actions occur at the very edge of the frame and quite often off screen, with only the ambient noise to direct the viewer of what is happening.

Nobody Knows

The editing is also nicely paced and keeps the camera movement to a minimum – any panning or tilting implies that the audience is there with the characters, which is not what Koreeda wanted at all. He used a ‘fly on the wall’ approach to follow the motion of events. Any camera movement usually occurs when examining the children from a safe distance or even behind an object. To further enhance this feeling the use of music has been kept to a minimum, only silence, background murmurs and conversations make up majority of the soundtrack.

It is interesting to note that the four children are played by non-professionals. Neither have had previous acting experience and the performances were still natural and convincing. Yuya Yagira, who plays Akira, won the best actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival due to his startlingly authentic performance. Furthermore, Koreeda filmed Nobody Knows chronologically over the course of one year and it shows – the children age as they would in real life.

In retrospect, many of us are probably indirectly responsible for ignoring issues such as child abandonment and poverty. We all take for granted what we have and what we have achieved, myself no exception. Nobody Knows increases awareness of these problems and is therefore one of the most important films of 2004, which I would strongly urge everyone to examine. It is moving and makes the viewer think closely of the issues raised within the film. Credit must be given to Hirokazu Koreeda for one of the finest accomplishments in contemporary cinematic history.

Nobody Knows is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, maintaining an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1. However there is a black border at both sides of the picture, making the actual visible image more 1.66:1. The entire movie is filmed using a handheld camera, providing Nobody Knows with a genuine low budget documentary feel. As a result, a few speckles creep up from time to time and there is a tremendous amount of grain but these are never distracting. Of course if this were a new blockbuster then the audience is within their right to complain but as is the case, the insight into these children’s lives is far more powerful then any technical issue.

Nobody Knows

The colours are reasonably natural, nothing looks altered or artificial and the shades are solidly kept in place with no evidence of smearing. External lighting was utilised but even this was subtly executed to provide striking realism, focusing on the cold areas of isolation. Shadow detail and black levels are admirable and the contrast balance is consistent throughout the film. In fact overall, the image is very perceptible and clear, with no signs of motion blurring or other major visual misrepresentations. There is however an unusual halo on the image border but considering it does not leave a mark anywhere else, this can be forgiven.

Nobody Knows contains a Japanese soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Firstly, the audio is really quiet so the volume needs to be turned way up to hear anything. Certain chapters are riddled with multiple noise sources, which are distributed evenly throughout the channels. At other times, there is a sort of deafening silence. The audio retains professional mixing and balance; it is ultimately clear enough to decipher the onscreen action. Even directional effects are employed. Occasionally if a character has just entered a particular location but is out of frame then the audio will adjust to recreate the desired effect.

The optional English subtitles are of top quality – perfectly legible, free of mistakes and nicely paced. They reflect well on the characters and conversations, being colloquial when required.

On the second disc, there is a 33m documentary exposing the director’s thoughts and intentions with the movie. Hirokazu Koreeda is interviewed and discusses the production process. There is also footage from the audition, premier and the Cannes Film Festival 2004, where Yuya Yagira collected his award for best actor.

Next there is a music video of the film’s main ballad, “Hoseki,” which also contains a montage of footage from Nobody Knows. The tune has a lovely melody and is a joy to listen to. Hopefully this will make it onto other DVD regions.

To finish things off, there is a TV spot, photo gallery and biographies. The menus are in Japanese and there are no subtitles for the supplementary materials. The set is absolutely beautiful; it includes a director’s note (in Japanese) and post card set and everything is housed inside a gorgeous foldout digipak with sturdy cardboard sleeve.

Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows will undoubtedly leave a formidable impact upon the viewer by exposing the desolate universe of abandoned children. Hirokazu Koreeda’s minimalist approach employs documentary and fictional narratives to create a film that is visually stunning and delivers precision execution. Whilst there is no straightforward storyline as such, the viewer is given an insight into what it means to be a child struggling through poverty without the simple privileges we all take for granted. The solid, natural performances and shocking turn of events will certainly open the viewer’s eyes to the truth of neglected and suffering children.

By making this film, Koreeda has given these children a voice as the rest of us are too blind to notice them. The Japanese DVD is a worthy addition to the shelves, as this is probably going to be the best presentation for the time being. With any luck, future releases will have decent subtitled extras, which will make the whole Nobody Knows experience complete.

You can purchase this title for $41.99 from top retailer Yes Asia.