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  • Benjamin May

Nobody Knows (2004) Review

A woman by the name of Keiko moves into an apartment with her son, Akira, smuggling in her other three, younger children so the landlord doesn't know of their existence. Some weeks go by, and the mother meets a man. She goes off with him and doesn't return for many months, leaving twelve-year-old Akira in charge of the household. He struggles to care for his family, barely scraping by with what little money his mother left. Somehow, he manages to do it with no serious ramifications. Keiko eventually returns, but it's not for long, and young Akira is forced once again to take up the mantle and look after his siblings; though this time it will be a much more difficult and lengthy process, with far more devastating results.


Hirokazu Koreeda's 'Nobody Knows' is a powerful, poignant drama based on the infamous Sugamo child abandonment case of 1988. The film is quietly affecting, telling the simple story of how Akira is forced to act like an adult to his siblings, trying to keep them safe and sound while being but a child himself: a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. Koreeda's screenplay is free of unnecessary sentiment or pretention; it is direct and unflinching, exploring many themes, the importance of parenthood being but one.

Koreeda's story is honest and emotionally charged, with minimal dialogue and layered characterization that is full of vivid believability and depth. The audience cares deeply for Akira and his siblings, as well as understanding- if not liking- Keiko and how she could leave her family for so long. It is masterful, understated screenwriting that will really hit home. Koreeda's best films explore humanity and connection, how everybody needs somebody sometime (to paraphrase the Dean Martin song). 'Nobody Knows' does too; to great effect.


It is worth mentioning that- in addition to writing and directing- Koreeda also acts as his own editor, so the tone and pacing is consistent from page to screen. The film moves at its' own pace, which is reserved but steady; ever-forging onwards towards the dramatic conclusion like a soldier in the snow. Also of note is Yutaka Yamazaki's restrained and naturalistic cinematography. His work is subtle and assured, resulting in images captured both with clarity and an artistic sense of space and composition. Yamazaki and Koreeda have worked together numerous times, with their collaborations usually resulting in striking, visually inventive films that one remembers long after seeing them. 'Nobody Knows' is another notch on their proverbial shared belt.

An old showbusiness adage goes "you should never work with children or animals," which is proven to be complete poppycock when one witnesses the efforts of the remarkable cast in 'Nobody Knows.' Yûya Yagira stars as Akira, delivering a captivating, masterful performance of integrity, profundity and subtle emotional perspicuity. Yagira is a brilliant performer, who can transmit emotions and say much- near incomparable in intensity and eloquence- with his physicality and through his silence. He was only thirteen when the film was shot and Yagira shows more intelligence and depth than most actors four times his age. He is a remarkably intuitive and natural actor who is fascinating to watch; and the power of his performance will have you frequently in tears while watching 'Nobody Knows.'


His siblings are played wonderfully by Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura and Momoko Shimizu, with Shimizu particularly impressing as the youngest child Yuki. Yukiko Ehara- better known as You- plays the mother, Keiko, and is perfect for the character. You doesn't play her as totally selfish, more as a young woman whose life raising children alone isn't what she wanted, and is desperate for things to change. She brings to the character much depth and charm; despite being slightly incorrigible. Rounding out the main cast is Hanae Kan, who plays a school-girl Akira befriends. She makes for a welcome addition to the film, and delivers a strong performance to boot.

Hirokazu Koreeda's 'Nobody Knows' is a sad, quiet film about abandonment that will move any with heart strings left to tug. Featuring powerful performances from the cast- especially the young Yûya Yagira- and striking cinematography from Yutaka Yamazaki; the film is not easily forgotten. Poignant, profound and powerful, 'Nobody Knows' is unaffected, uncompromising and unforgettable cinema.

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