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Nobody Knows

By Murray Bourne, 19 Sep 2005

Nobody Knows (誰も知らない - 'Dare mo Shiranai'), directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, is a fictional reconstruction based on the true story of 4 children who were abandoned in a Tokyo apartment in 1988 ("Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo").

It was a very moving film for me, especially as it seemed so disturbingly possible. The 4 kids (who had 4 different fathers) move into a small apartment with their immature and inadequate mother. She often takes off ("I need to work in Osaka"), leaving the 12-year-old eldest son to look after the other three. The younger ones are not registered with the local government so 'nobody knows' they even exist.

They promise their mother not to go out of the apartment. They don't go to school and spend their days watching TV and playing games. The scenes where they beg their mother to allow them to go to school are particularly poignant.

Eventually the mother disappears for good. The situation becomes increasingly grim as the water, electricity and gas get cut off. They wash in the local park and beg for leftovers from the local convenience store.

The film-making style is typically Japanese (long pauses where nothing much seems to be happening, but which give the audience a chance to reflect and consider what the kids are going through), and with many images of the changing seasons to indicate the passage of time. There are powerful closeups of tiny, vulnerable hands and feet, the washing machine (which was the responsibility of the elder sister) and the plants that they discover on their first excursion outside. The movie captures well the stoic side of the Japanese psyche.

Did anyone notice the kids and ask if they needed help? Was it the responsibility of the local convenience store workers who knew their plight and tried to help? Was it the responsibility of the school girl they met in the park? The kids were basically homeless, even though they had a roof over their heads.

I was living in Japan at the time of this story and was working very close to Nishi-Sugamo. This was still at the height of the economic boom in Japan and this story doesn't seem to fit with that prosperous, idyllic time. Rather, it belongs better in the post-boom malaise that has affected the country for 15 years. This latter period has witnessed the sarin gas attacks, beheadings of school children, high unemployment, increasing homelessness and something of a loss in direction, especially in the youth.

A powerful movie and one I recommend.

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