Growing up, we probably all had a set of rules from our parents. Don’t play on the grass, or don’t talk to strangers come to mind. But, no loud noises? Never leave the house? How could children live like this? This is the world that Kore-eda establishes early on in his masterwork Nobody Knows, a film about the things we do for ‘love’ – in every sense of the word – and one that has held a very special place in my heart since first seeing it at university some years ago.
Keiko and her preteen son Akira move into a new apartment in Tokyo, seemingly the perfect family. She mentions to the landlord that her husband is away for work, and that it’ll just be the two of them there most of the time. With the arrival of their possessions on the back of a moving truck, we quickly discover the truth; emerging from an array of suitcases we meet Akira’s sister Yuki, and their brother Shigeru, while their older sister Kyōko arrives by train at night. The children of four different fathers (although none of them are around), their mother has never sent them to school, and to neighbours and the outside world, eldest son Akira is her only child. Keiko acts more like a friend than a parent, and as her visits to see a new boyfriend leave her away from the apartment for longer stretches each time, Akira has to grow up fast and take care of the rest of the family.
Kore-eda based the film on a 1988 incident known in Japan as the ‘Sugamo child-abandonment case” and spent over 15 years writing and revising his script, but thankfully he spares us some of the grimmer details from the real-life events. What we do find are the origins of many of the traits celebrated in his later works Like Father, Like Son and Shoplifters, most notably his harmonious blend of fiction and realism (his earlier career was as a documentarian) and his near-peerless direction of children.
These two qualities come together beautifully in Nobody Knows. Kore-eda didn’t give the children scripts, and would often hide the camera, waiting for them to drop their guard and act naturally with each other before letting a take roll. His work as a director has been compared to many other filmmakers’; most commonly Tokyo Story director Yasujirō Ozu, both in his humanism and stylistic approach – static, wide shots; shooting through doorways to create frames within the frame. It’s an apt assessment of most Kore-eda films, especially our next film, Still Walking, but his camerawork here also relies heavily on close-ups to express the many unspoken emotions of the children, particularly the stoic Akira; seemingly innocuous shots of hair brushings, nail varnish or tiny shoes convey heart-breaking hidden meanings.
This natural, understated approach in both performance and directorial style appeared to pay dividends when the film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Yūya Yagira became the youngest recipient of the Best Actor Award for playing Akira. It was also here that many people first became aware of the great Kore-eda, and, while I hope you’ve been taking advantage of such rare treats as Maborosi and After Life being back on the big screen, if you’re yet to see any of his films, then Nobody Knows is the perfect place to start. It certainly was for me.Find your cinema and book tickets