We’re still engaged on our project to see all Kore-eda’s films; he is one of the master film-makers of our times. This one was made in 2004, his third movie. It’s quite extraordinary – the four children who occupy the central roles have no script and, for the most part, few words, but carry the film through their expressions. The oldest actor, 12-year old Yuya Agira won best actor at Cannes, the youngest ever actor to do so. The filming was chronological over 12 months to reflect the passage in time and the physical changes that take place in the kids themselves.
Kore-eda’s signature genre centres round family life, but this is a family with a difference.
A ditzy mother, Keiko, played by You, the well-known Japanese singer and film star, arrives at a new apartment with her son, Akira, and some suspiciously large suitcases. Oh yes, she assures the landlord and his wife, it’s only the two of us. Upstairs, the suitcases spring open to reveal three other children, ten-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), four-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) and brother Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), probably about six or seven.
Keiko explains the ‘rules’, warning her children not to spoil things like before – they must not go outside – apart from Kyoko who has to do the washing – and Shigeru must not misbehave and make lots of noise as is his wont. With that she disappears to ‘work’, asking what’s for supper as if she was the child and Akira the parent. We can only hazard a guess what her work is.
She comes back late, stinking of booze as Akira observes, and devours the curry he has made for the family. Woozily she tells Akira she has a last met someone who might marry her and make her happy. Akira is sceptical – he’s heard that before and admonishes her (parental fashion) for being so selfish. Like a spoiled child she pouts and says she deserves to be happy.
It’s no surprise that shorter absences from home supposedly for work meld into increasingly longer ones culminating in a total disappearance, with Akira left to fend for the family as best he can. He tracks down the various fathers of his siblings (naturally they are all different) to raise subsistence. In his desperation and loneliness he befriends some bad boys and is in danger of being led seriously astray; it’s all very edgy and discomforting. Even his nice girl friend, Saki (Hanai Kan) – not in a sexual way, they are too young – is so moved that she offers herself to a stranger, only karaoke singing she tells him, but Akira’s moral compass is appalled at his transition into a pimp-like status. Deeply disturbing stuff when played out in the lives of pre-teens.
The money runs out, the services are cut off, yet no one seems to notice as the flat sinks into a state of filth (it must have smelled); even the landlady who peeks in one day to ask for the rent is seemingly oblivious to the ‘cousins’ who have mysteriously appeared. It’s more damming evidence on the self-absorption of the grown-ups and the uncomfortable role reversal as the childen become adult and the adults behave like children. It adds to the horror story that is building into a crescendo.
This is a heartbreaking film, particularly relevant in our times of isolation. Many people must feel abandoned right now, unable to see their loved ones; many must also short of money. Here the kids are forced to get water from the municipal pump, beg for food from kindly shop-keepers and count their last pennies. Akira has been to school once, and makes good use of his maths, but the other kids are resentful of being deprived of this opportunity. There is a charming scene where Akira is substituted into a baseball team at the school where he is waiting for Saki – for a moment he is a normal boy doing boyish things.
As the crisis deepens Kore-eda takes us right into the minds of the children with the closely-shot scenes in the flat (there is after all no more room than we can see), and their poignant simple pleasures of receiving their mother’s strange gifts like a backpack when going out is forbidden, or of devouring a pot noodle as if it was the best meal ever. As their plight becomes more serious and despair sets in they make secret sorties (to find their mother?) to prove that they are still alive.
Even more salutary is the knowledge that this is based on a true story of four kids abandoned by their mother who somehow survived until they were discovered. Nobody knows is not a tale of redemption but of the fierce love and pride of a group of siblings who, with the absence of any parental role model, have no option but to cleave to each other and somehow survive. It is certainly a foretaste of what this wonderful director had in store as his repertoire matured.