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Hirokazu Koreeda’s ‘Nobody Knows’ Movie Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2022

Introduction

Nobody Knows is a film by Hirokazu Koreeda that was produced in 2004. The plot and background of the film are remarkable as it is based on real events that occurred in Tokyo in 1988. Using a naturalistic approach to film-making, Koreeda depicted the dramatic situation of how four children survived in a small apartment in Tokyo after being abandoned by their young mother.1 The purpose of this paper is to analyze such aspects of Nobody Knows as the theme of family, the genre combining elements of fiction and documentaries, a linear narrative, the children’s perspective, and camera work.

Review of Nobody Knows

The plot of Nobody Knows is based on a true story that was actively discussed in the media in 1988. Keiko, a young woman, leaves her four children abandoned in a rented apartment in Tokyo in order to start a new life with her new partner. Akira, a 12-year-old boy, becomes the head of their family when the mother leaves the siblings. All the children have different fathers, and only Akira is allowed to go outside because nobody knows that other three children also live in the rented apartment. They are told to behave quietly and avoid going outside or to school as their mother is absent most of the time.

After the mother goes away for an extremely long period of time, providing a minimal sum of money, Akira tries to take care of his 11-year-old sister Kyōko, 7-year-old brother Shigeru, and 5-year-old sister Yuki. The film depicts the year in these children’s life with a focus on their daily activities and challenges they face.

During the period presented in the film, the mother returns only once, and she promises to take the children after her marriage. However, she never returns again in spite of the fact that Akira knows that she is married. When Keiko and Akira talk for the last time, she asks: “What is this? I’m not allowed to be happy?”, and this claim explains the mother’s inability and unwillingness to take care of her children.2 Yuki’s death because of falling off a stool can be viewed as the climax of the film. The children have to hide the body in the suitcase and bury her close to Haneda Airport’s runway. The film ends with depicting the siblings walking to their homes. Thus, in this work, much attention is paid to presenting the details of the children’s lives in order to resemble reality as accurately as possible. It is also important to note that Koreeda chooses to invite non-actors for the main roles in the film in order to ensure that the presentation of the story is naturalistic.

The Theme of Family in Nobody Knows in the Context of the Japanese Tradition

In Nobody Knows, the theme of family is discussed by Koreeda in a specific manner to attract the audience’s attention to the problem of relations between relatives with reference to the question of responsibility. According to Bingham, in this film, “the family becomes an increasingly abstract entity.”3 In addition, there is a view that Koreeda tries to violate the tradition of representing families in cinema because of the necessity to focus on social challenges affecting family life.

Thus, the film “seems to offer a picture that could be taken as any family in any Japanese city.”4 However, in spite of the specifics of representing the case, this situation cannot be perceived as typical, and Koreeda accentuates how fathers and mothers in Japanese society can fail to perform their roles of parents. As a result, the director refers to “inattentive, irresponsible fathers and neglectful, selfish mothers,” presenting the picture of “dysfunctional parents that amplifies the discourse concerning the erosion of the traditional family unit.”5 As a consequence of the shift in roles, older children are expected to perform the roles of parents.

In his film, Koreeda provides a unique view regarding the importance of the family unit with a focus on the traditional roles of parents in order to be able to bring up happy children. In order to accentuate the importance of the family concept, Koreeda chooses to realize the theme of family in his work through demonstrating “the complete obfuscation of the family unit.”6 Thus, Koreeda succeeds in representing the character of the mother emphasizing her unpreparedness to perform as a parent. That is why, the woman tries to avoid performing her responsibilities, and she chooses to reject this role abandoning her children.

The role of the parent cannot be performed successfully by Akira as well because he is not ready to take care of his siblings as their father. Furthermore, he has no example of the father in order to follow it. However, he understands that they can survive only if they are together, and when Akira speaks to a clerk, he notes: “If I do [contact the police or child welfare], the four of us won’t be able to stay together. That happened before and it was an awful mess.”7 Thus, through the careful representation of activities observed day-by-day that usually compose a large part of normal family activities, Koreeda intends to demonstrate what it means to be a family and live a family life.

Specifics of the Genre of Nobody Knows

Koreeda has a background in producing documentaries, and this aspect can be discussed as influencing the director’s approach to presenting his stories in films. Nobody Knows is characterized by an exceptional naturalistic plot that is utilized in order to accentuate the minor details of the characters’ lives to their full extent. The method of mixing genres is typical of the Japanese cinema.8 Even if the realization of the plot is rather fictional, Koreeda chooses to base his films on real-life stories. As it is noted by Bingham, the director “deftly conflates feature and non-fiction modes of filmmaking,” and this explains the fact that Nobody Knows “occupies a fault line between competing signs and systems.”9

In order to accentuate the elements of documentaries in the film, Koreeda pays much attention to representing ordinary activities of the children, their domestic tasks and responsibilities, such as washing clothes or shopping. All these elements create the image of the protagonists’ lives in their home space in contrast to the reality outside their apartment.

To make the film similar to documentaries, Koreeda does not add music to support some scenes in the story in order to accentuate the sounds of the real world that accompany the characters’ actions. An additional aspect that can be associated with documentaries is the lack of accentuated sensational moments in the film. The scenes related to Yuki’s death seem to lack emotional coloring, and the film becomes to resemble the reporting of events without any sensitivity.

This approach used by Koreeda helps to accentuate the paradox and uncommonness in the depicted events when the siblings have to survive without the support of their parents. For the purpose of depicting how children can live in the world without adults’ assistance, the other children in the film are also presented as having parents who never appear on the screen. Thus, Nobody Knows touches the concept of the family in Japanese society from several angles, referring to the presentation of the tragedy of abandoned children, irresponsible single mothers, and adolescents lacking care.

A Linear Narrative to Support the Fictional Documentary

The focus on the linear narrative in order to maintain the chronology in the presented story is one of the elements that can be associated with some documentaries. In Nobody Knows, this approach allows for telling the story that occurred in a real-life, and the focus on the chronology is important to emphasize the children’s waiting for their mother. Seasons change each other, as it is depicted in the film, and the protagonists learn how to live without their mother day by day.10 As a result of using this approach, there are limited opportunities for adding some fictional or flashback elements to the canvas of the story depicted by Koreeda.

In addition to the linear narrative, Koreeda also applies the framework technique accentuating the use of suitcases by the characters. Thus, the story starts when the mother and Akira come to a new apartment with two large suitcases in which they hide two other children. What is more important is that the story ends when a suitcase is used in order to carry the dead body of Yuki. This dramatic aspect is portrayed in a rather unemotional manner.

It remains secret for the audience whether the brothers and the sister of Yuki were crying because of her death. It seems that there are no direct hints in the film in order to explain the emotional nature of the relationship between the siblings in the family. This approach contributes to the unique presentation of the family concept in the work, and a linear narrative provides little space for adding scenes that can be regarded as the characters’ reflections on the events.

The Application of the Children’s Perspective in Nobody Knows

The application of the perspectives of children in order to present a certain story in the film can be discussed as rather an unconventional approach that helps to attract the audience’s attention to the problems of the portrayed family. Thus, the life of the protagonists is depicted through the eyes of the children; as a result, it seems that the plot lacks the climax, evidence, or some accents. The reason is that the story is presented as a real-life one; therefore, it lacks dramatic elements typical for fictional films. The plot is not complex, and it is rather problematic to notice the director’s perspective in this story. This particular approach allows for distinguishing this film among other works as all the events presented in the film seem to be extremely real in spite of their shocking nature.

In order to emphasize how children view the world around them, Koreeda uses long shots, a narrowed focus on the objects that are interesting to the young characters, and dialogues among the siblings. The performers of Akira, Kyōko, Shigeru, and Yuki are non-professional actors, and this approach helps the director to concentrate on their real perceptions, reactions, behaviors, and relationships. This method is applied in order to represent real relations that develop between children, and the depiction of the events becomes more naturalistic and provided from the point of view of the children as the main agents in this story.

Camera Work to Support the Perspective, Genre, and Theme in the Film

In order to support the narration in the film and make the representation of the events more similar to a documentary, much attention is paid to the camera work and shots. Koreeda’s task in Nobody Knows is to emphasize the subjectivity of the main characters’ experience that is typical for documentaries. As a result, the specifics of the children’s lives in the apartment are presented with the help of focusing on separate parts of the frame, to make the field rather narrow and focused.

Thus, the situation of being limited by the walls of the apartment is accentuated in the film. On the contrary, when Akira goes outside, shots are changed to long ones. According to Bingham, the director juxtaposes children’s activities at home and outside with the help of using “generally tight interior compositions, with a preponderance of long and extreme long shots (often taken from a high angle)” when they go outside.11 As a result, it is possible to speak about the contrast between the interior and exterior activities presented in the film.

Additionally, in order to represent the world through the eyes of the young characters, the camera is used to focus on the objects that seem to be selected by the children. Thus, the shots work in the way to demonstrate how children view the world around them, from their unique personal perspective. Selective focusing allows for adding to the subjectivity of the presented story to make it more personal and similar to a documentary. In the film, the camera effectively focuses on the details of the children’s everyday life in order to accentuate the flow of events that cannot be perceived as normal for the family.

However, these events and details compose the siblings’ uncommon life the struggles of which cannot be avoided because of their mother’s act. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that camera work contributes to representing the subjective experience of the children in order to support the idea that the style of the film is documentary in a way.

Conclusion

The analysis of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows indicates that it is a distinctive film that has helped its director to present his unique view on the problem of relationships in the family with reference to the perspective of children. The story based on real-life events can be considered as convincing and provoking certain emotions because of the director’s combination of the elements of documentaries and fiction in this work. As a consequence of applying this technique to manipulate the genre of the film, the story is perceived as naturalistic, persuasive, and shocking. Camera work and the utilization of the children’s perspective allow for creating the effect that the whole story reflects the position of the children who were left by their mother and had to survive in Tokyo.

Bibliography

Bingham, Adam. “The Changing Japanese Family on Film.” In Contemporary Japanese Cinema Since Hana-Bi, edited by Adam Bingham, 95-119. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Inuhik, Yomota. “Introduction.” In What is Japanese Cinema?, edited by Yomota Inuhik, 1-23. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Nobody Knows. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Performed by Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, and Hiei Kimura. Tokyo: Cinequanon, 2004. DVD.

Footnotes

  1. Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, perf. Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, and Hiei Kimura (Tokyo: Cinequanon, 2004), DVD.
  2. Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, perf. Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, and Hiei Kimura (Tokyo: Cinequanon, 2004), DVD.
  3. Adam Bingham, “The Changing Japanese Family on Film,” in Contemporary Japanese Cinema since Hana-Bi, ed. Adam Bingham (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), 102.
  4. Bingham, “The Changing Japanese Family,” 102.
  5. Bingham, “The Changing Japanese Family,” 102.
  6. Ibid., 102.
  7. Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, perf. Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, and Hiei Kimura (Tokyo: Cinequanon, 2004), DVD.
  8. Yomota Inuhik, “Introduction,” in What is Japanese Cinema?, ed. Yomota Inuhik (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 9-11.
  9. Bingham, “The Changing Japanese Family,” 102.
  10. Nobody Knows, dir. Hirokazu Koreeda, perf. Yūya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, and Hiei Kimura (Tokyo: Cinequanon, 2004), DVD.
  11. Bingham, “The Changing Japanese Family,” 104.
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