The Japanese, I used to think, were the most child-loving people on the face of the planet. A generation ago, TV moms were selflessly devoted to their offspring, forever bringing them bowls of hot, nutritious noodles as they crammed for those all-important school entrance exams. TV dads, though workaholics almost to a man, usually had time for a game of catch or a few gruff words of fatherly advice. Like the moms, they were always going to be there, come what may, for what they called their kodakara — literally, “child treasures.”
Now, having raised kids here myself and observed the culture for a couple more decades, I’m not so sure. In recent Japanese films, the kyoiku mama (“education mother”) of old has given way to clueless, distraught parents who are all but irrelevant to their kids’ lives. Junior is no longer at his desk, sucking down Mom’s home cooking, but hanging out in the streets of Shibuya — and Mom never calls his cell-phone number.
By comparison, the mother in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows (Daremo Shiranai)” seems a sympathetic type. Though emotionally still a kid herself, she is pally with her children: 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) and his younger siblings — Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). They love her dearly in return, though Akira knows, more than the others do, that she is not to be trusted.
Mom (You), who had each of her kids with a different father, but is married to none of them, is flighty, scatterbrained and, as it turns out, pathologically irresponsible. Soon after moving into a new apartment (and sneaking in the three younger kids so the neighbors won’t talk), she leaves one night — and doesn’t return. Used to Mom’s absences by now, the kids go about their business, while Akira serves as a surrogate parent — shopping, cooking and enforcing Mom’s “rules”: Don’t talk loudly, play on the veranda or leave the apartment. That means no school, no neighborhood friends — nothing but whatever life they can create in the confines of their flat on the 200,000 yen Mom left them in an envelope.
As the weeks pass, they manage well enough — like most children they are resourceful when put to the test — but they are also almost totally alone. Akira visits two of Mom’s former flames, but they give him only a few bills and words of sympathy. He forms a tentative bond with the staff of a neighborhood convenience store, but can tell them nothing of his true situation. Meanwhile, the younger children withdraw into private worlds of fantasy and play.
After a month, Mom returns with presents, but little in the way of apologies or explanations. Then, just before Christmas, she leaves again — not saying when or if she will come back.
Based on a true 1987 incident, “Nobody Knows” has been 15 years in the making, since Kore-eda wrote his first draft of the script in 1989. Usually such a long gestation is not a good sign: By the time a director brings his labor of love to the screen it feels . . . labored. Scenes that once burst with vitality in the auteur’s brain now look inert on the screen.
Kore-eda, however, works less from a grand design, with storyboards detailing every scene, than from personal concerns and memories, using methods he developed in his early years as a documentary filmmaker, when he would spend months and even years getting to know his subjects. In making “Nobody Knows,” however, he was not just a fly on the wall with a camera: He had a script, a shooting schedule — the usual movie-making apparatus.
But he also wanted his young cast to interact, grow, and express their personalities freely, with as little adult dictation as possible. Momoko Shimizu, who played the youngest child, Yuki, liked Apollo Choco better than Strawberry Pocky (if you are familiar with neither, you have probably not spent much time in Japanese convenience stores with a 5-year-old), so Kore-eda changed his script — and her on-camera smile when she sees a box of her favorite treat is brighter as a result. A minor point, but illustrative of the way the film faithfully reflects the fabric of the children’s lives over the course of a year.
Kore-eda may be editorializing about how kids can become invisible in modern, urban society, but he is also showing us how they really talk, play, and otherwise live when no one but his (ever-discreet) camera is looking. The lack of the usual structuring and cueing — no music swells as Mom leaves her little ones for the last time — may make the film seem, in places, unfocused and slow, but in its last third, Kore-eda’s faith in his methods, and patience with his young actors, pays off. By this time the children’s money is gone, together with the water, gas and electricity, and their only real friend is a quiet, ethereally pretty girl (Hanae Kan) who has stopped going to junior high school. Their utter isolation, the fact that no one in their building or neighborhood cares if they live or die, is wrenching precisely because we have been with them so long, getting to know them so well, in the everydayness of their struggle and decline.
All the film’s young actors are superb (as is pop singer You as their unreliable mother), but it was Yuya Yagira, as Akira, who won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where “Nobody Knows” screened in competition. A newcomer when he auditioned for the role, Yagira has little of the professional child actor about him, but his Akira is a complex personality, who can be cynical, furtive and world-weary beyond his years, but then light up with boyish enthusiasm when he is playing schoolyard baseball or riding a playground roundabout.
What will his future be? “Nobody Knows” offers no easy answers, allows for no easy pity. Instead of giving us a good, self-congratulatory cry, it leaves us with one lingering truth: His mother wasn’t the only one who abandoned those kids — we all did.