Hirokazu Kore-eda wants to hurt you. The Japanese director of Maborosi and After Life explores universal themes in wandering human dramas that always seem to be on the verge of ending horribly, even when his characters are couched in placid settings such as a waiting room in heaven, or a sterile apartment building. His work can be excruciating, both in pace and vulnerability, as they sneak around the back way to emotional extremes that might not wash if presented the same way by an American director.
I’m still not sure how he does it, or if anyone else even thinks Kore-eda is getting away with something, but for many American viewers, the language barrier and his slow, studied Ozu-esque visual style somehow combine with the myth of Japanese emotional restraint to make us more amenable to melodrama. But Kore-eda’s impressive storytelling skills are undeniable, and they’re at their peak in Nobody Knows.
The film opens with single mother Keiko (played, expertly and ominously, by a Japanese pop star who goes by You) and her prepubescent son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), moving into an apartment. Their suitcases contain two younger kids smuggled into the building, and a fourth child arrives later to live in an apartment meant for two people. To keep from blowing their cover, Keiko forbids her kids from screaming, playing noisy games or even going outside on the veranda, except to do the laundry for her.
Keiko is fleetingly competent, but it’s obvious these kids are in the kind of danger that only a painfully immature parent can provide. All four have different fathers, and Keiko takes off one day with another boyfriend, leaving the children to stare at each other. Keiko returns that night, drunk and infatuated, but soon leaves again. She returns at just about the same time the money runs out, bearing gifts—and then she’s in the wind forever, despite money in the mail and empty promises to return. Akira becomes the head of the household, and his struggle to keep his siblings alive and invisible becomes an epic battle.
Nobody Knows documents this family unit’s dissolution with heart-shredding vignettes brilliantly filmed with a roaming camera that seems as rootless as the kids. Akira takes them on a rare walk outside for a birthday present, and their awkward joy hurts, particularly when the 4-year-old points out things she’s only seen on TV. Akira is briefly invited to play baseball, giving him a fleeting normalcy that’s only certain to vanish. My theater got very onion-scented when Akira spends far too many of his valuable coins to stay on hold in a phone booth, waiting in vain for his mother to pick up.
But when we reach the third hour of Nobody Knows, Kore-eda’s languorous pace and the constant threat of disaster simply becomes too much to maintain. He waits a bit too long to drive us over the emotional edge, and it proves impossible to keep up the dramatic tension when setback after setback all but assures a nasty end. And though the film is based on a true story that scandalized Japan in the late 1980s, all misery is relative. After watching the Calcutta street urchins of Born Into Brothels, it’s hard to remain totally sympathetic to a kid who didn’t contact any adult authorities because he apparently didn’t trust them; a Japanese foster home would be heaven to the children of Indian prostitutes.
But Nobody Knows still is stylish and heart-rending enough to qualify as exquisite human drama. The hollow, impotent feeling it evokes is like nothing in recent cinema so much as Vera Drake, a completely different film about another overmatched hero paying a horrific price for trying to be good.
NOBODY KNOWS ***.5 Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura. Rated PG-13