NOBODY KNOWS (2004) dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

4 Aug


When I asked my Japanese colleague to suggest a Japanese movie, she pitched the same film that London’s Institute of Contemporary Art emailed me about that very same week, the film they are showing to their members free this month. I guessed there must be something in it. Nobody Knows: the first movie I’ve watched for three months.

Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki are aged between 12 and 5. Accompanied by their mother, Akira moves into a new apartment in Tokyo, with Shigeru and Yuki smuggled into the building inside suitcases because children aren’t allowed. Kyoko arrives later by herself. Only Akira can leave the building or go onto the balcony. None of the kids go to school (there is no compulsory education in Japan, I was told, therefore it is possible to not attend one).

The director, Hirokazu Koreeda, uses a kind of Hitchcockian attention to detail to give us so much more than what is presented. The mother in this film is not so much a bad mother than not a mother at all. They say that sometimes bad homes produce good children and good homes bad ones. Despite dreadful conditions some people grow up to become beautiful with noble values. At the start of the film we see Akira shiftily looking at magazines in a mini-mart, the manager pulls him over to check his bag, finds unaccounted for things, stolen goods. Luckily the checkout assistant noticed some boys putting items into the bag. Akira’s innocence at this moment subtly is retained throughout the rest of the film. He’s a good person; we can be sure. We see him studying, wanting to better himself, rise out of circumstance.

The mother, Keiko, who talks to her children more like a friend than a mother clearly has mental problems. Every now and again in Japan, someone with an annoyingly sweet syrupy voice comes along – for instance, there’s a waitress in a Denny’s that I go to regularly – it makes me totally wonder if it’s all front or how it is even possible to squeak and smile and be so false sounding when at the same time genuine. It’s a voice so sincere it can only be artificial. The Japanese aren’t known for their great expressiveness. Bad feeling can easily be disguised or blockaded by a smile – or a citrine voice, babbling insane. The kid’s mother speaks in this naive way.

She disappears ‘to work’ for a month, leaving them about as much yen as an average monthly salary, only the money runs out and Akira has to ask round Yuki’s possible fathers for money in order to survive. Akira and Kyoko know that really their mother has gone off to be with some man; she promises them a normal life with the education that they dream of when she marries. In Japan, marriage is similar to how it was in the 1970’s in the West and more expected of couples living together. A single parent family is unusual. The kids, each with their different fathers, are odd even with a mother. But without any emotional, financial or physical parental support the kids are super! Mature and well-behaved. Not at all the wild savages one might expect.

Their mother eventually returns. Briefly. Akira tells her, over coffee in Mr Donut, that she’s selfish. The Japanese have a concept called amae, which roughly translates as a bitter-sweet love, like the relationships we have with our parents. I think that more than this, amae is the sweet aspect to the love and it doesn’t have to be so, amae you can give and you can take it away too. If Akira was adult, he might be more deeply pissed off with his mother in the cafeteria. As it is she encourages him to eat his donut, while he quickly forgets his harsh words and laughs at hers. She leaves more money, promises to be back by Christmas, then goes again into the bitter chill of a night lit with the cold, harsh, bright white artificial light common to Japan.

Of course, she’s not back at Christmas. Akira and Kyoko take the male and female domestic roles. When we were kids were used to fantasize that we were fourteen and had younger siblings to rear. It was a game we would play when we were ourselves still babies. The reality is living in squalor, wearing unwashed clothes, a sea of garbage [Japan has totally Americanized my language, no apologies], unpaid bills and (wait for it) a diet of… noodles! If it sounds like life in East London, then you should see it on screen, the kids are so lovely and respectable, despite fending for themselves. It isn’t an entirely bleak movie, although their suffering is presented without much gloss or veneer.

Plus cup noodles in Japan are way better than cheap noodles from the Kingsland Sainsburys! Even tramps in Tokyo, living without social security, wouldn’t eat those soggy relics that taste like recycled cardboard and are actually better eaten uncooked like biscuits. For about 45p, a cup noodle is pretty reasonable, maybe not delicious (oi shi) like the kids ironically declare but not bad. The freeze dried content is ok. There is a whole aisle in Tokyo supermarkets given over to noodles. U.F.O. green are my favorite – yes, soba with wasabi mayonnaise is oi shi! I think cup noodles are fairly average for lunch or dinner in Japan and not as scorned upon as in the U.K.. The kids also eat going off sushi that they get free from the mini-mart. It’s not an idyllic existence.

The key symbolism in the movie evokes a sensation of being in the situation of the mother, even though we haven’t seen her for most of the film, we are sutured into her mindset of absence through clever portrayals. Close-ups of feet and hands. The camera spends just a second or two too long on Kyoko’s frilly socks, making her feet seem half-way between tiny and adult, while walking in the adult role in the household. The manicured red nails that her mother gives her, so grown-up, a final memory of her primary carer, chipping away, fading away like the carefree childhood she doesn’t have, stained by responsibility.

Likewise, Yuki’s slippers, which make a noise, represent the silence the family endures in their secret abandonment. Akira allows her to wear them outside, in his youth immune to the contagious noise that any self-respecting parent would confine to indoors, oblivious to the attention they attract. We know Yuki is dead when we see her hand still and unmoving, upturned, unresponsive. The tacky, noisey, much loved slippers are pushed onto her feet one final time.

An interesting scene is at the start when Kyoko accidentally spills her mother’s nail varnish. “I told you not to touch my things!” the mother says angrily, trying to wipe up the stain. Later Kyoko blames herself for her mother’s departure. But the real insight to be gained from this moment is the idea of ‘my things.’ We spend the rest of the movie watching this woman’s ‘things’ as they go through a winter alone; face the rebirth of spring alone; make friends alone; sell their possessions alone; bury one of themselves alone. We’re kept captive in her psychology because these little hands and feet that we repeatedly see belong to these children. But they are children that have formed inside her body. They are her hands and feet as much as they are theirs.

As a viewer I was expecting the film to end with the mother’s return. But it ended with a sudden still shot. And I could look inside her head because I had unknowingly been conditioned by the director to become the mother. I kept going when the movie stopped; my absence roared deafeningly.

Out there, somewhere, in a miserable marriage that could turn sour, a child-like woman with a dishonest voice keeps a dark secret from her husband. She fears the reprisal of her children for abandoning them. The longer she spends away, the worse it gets, the more difficult it becomes to return. So she doesn’t return. Instead, during the day, she believes the lie she has created for herself, while at night she lies awake haunted by the terror of being found out. She is the mother of four children and nobody, absolutely nobody, knows.



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