Authentic child actor performances are as difficult to capture on film as it is to build a feature around the uncooperative selfishness of animals. The 2004 Japanese drama Nobody Knows deserves just as much credit for wrangling its incredibly young & convincingly genuine cast of performers as this year’s Kedi does for somehow constructing a narrative around the daily lives of Turkish street cats. Much of that achievement is attributable to director Hirokazu Koreeda’s dedication to a documentary-style verisimilitude while filming his insular cast of young, nonprofessional performers. With a narrative modeled after real life child abandonment cases of the 1980s, Nobody Knows focuses almost entirely on juvenile characters left to fend for themselves with few resources & few interactions with adults. After fifteen years of planning & revision, the story of four young siblings was shot in sequence over the course of a year, mostly held to the confines of single, three room apartment. Most recent stories about this kind of juvenile confinement — Room, Brigsby Bear, The Wolfpack, etc. — adopt the lyricism of a child’s imagination, but Nobody Knows values honesty over style. With very little score and largely improvised performances captured through obscured cameras, the film mostly concerns itself with watching its four central characters grow one year older in an enclosed, unsupervised space without the structure or discipline of adult influence. While sometimes exhaustingly quiet & unrushed, it’s a fascinating achievement in form & authenticity.
A young, single mother smuggles her four children into a three room apartment, claiming to her new landlord that her oldest son is her only child. As the rest of her kids emerge from their transporting suitcases, which they then use like furniture, you get the sense that there’s a nomadic routine to this ritual. She reminds them of the ground rules: remain quiet & stay indoors. Only the oldest boy, Akira, is allowed to venture outside so that he can collect groceries & other supplies while she’s out at work (and at play). The oldest kids’ responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, clothing, and homeschooling their younger siblings to maintain this off-the-books home is a heavy, adult set of obligations. Selfishly, the mother drinks out on the town and acts like an irresponsible child while they shoulder this weight. While she leaves the apartment to pursue external pleasures, we’re left holding our breath for how long she’ll be gone and the kids will be solely responsible for maintaining order within the home & keeping the family intact, out of the destructive hands of child protective services. Her absences are erratic, sometimes lasting a workday, sometimes lasting months, with little thought given to the money & supplies she’s budgeted the children with in her wake. The majority of the narrative unfolds in what feels like a year-long stretch of the mother’s absence, with no sign of return. The kids’ hair grows longer; dishes & garbage pile up; the utilities are cut; home-cooked meals backside into instant ramen & chewed paper. We see the truth of what children are capable of accomplishing when left on their own without a caring adult, a reality that can be both beautiful & tragic as the circumstances become more drastically isolating.
At 140 minutes of solemn reflection on the resilience of abused & abandoned children, Nobody Knows can be a little trying in its commitment to verisimilitude. Watching the kids’ state gradually devolve into disorder as they visibly age in front of the camera is fascinating as an artistic experiment, but maybe a little too academically thorough & a little too subdued for its own good as a feature film. Some of the film’s best moments come when this natural atmosphere is broken up by the kids finding joy in the transgression of venturing outdoors or innocently debating whether pop culture creations like zombies, UFOs, and Totoro are “really, really real.” That joyful release may not have meant as much without the solemn isolation that engulfs it, but I still found myself wishing certain sequences were trimmed in the editing room for the sake of practicality. I can see how after nearly two decades of work on a film with reflections of real life parenting horrors in its DNA, Hirokazu Koreeda may have been reluctant to lose any more of his footage to edits than he already did. Even when its merits as fictional entertainment are sacrificed to the authenticity of documentation of real life trauma, Nobody Knows still shines as a technical achievement in cinematic honesty. You’re not likely to see onscreen performances from children this genuine and this consistent in quality in any other feature, which alone makes the film a significant work. Knowing that there’s a reality to their year-long trial in isolation only makes those performances more hauntingly effective. Hirokazu Koreeda was likely smart for sticking to that honesty over the traditional entertainment value I personally longed for.