Everybody knows: An in-depth look at Kore-eda’s breakthrough film
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Yûya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You
Studio: Bandai/Engine/Cine Qua Non/TV Man Union
Introducing Nobody Knows
Nobody Knows scrutinized the underbelly of Japanese society like few films had done before it and made waves far beyond Japanese shores. It skyrocketed Kore-eda toward the top of the Japanese movie industry. Naturally, it also became an important part of Japanese film history.
Nobody Knows opened eyes worldwide to Kore-eda’s filmmaking. The film was praised for its powerful storytelling, exceptional performances, and evocative cinematography. It also won several awards, including Yūya Yagira’s Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
The elegant blend of sociocultural commentary and entertainment value was undeniable. Kore-eda had crafted a thought-provoking film with universal appeal. Compared to his later films, Nobody Knows might come off as a little dated, but rest assured, it is a gem to anyone interested in Japanese cinema.
The Real-Life Incident that Inspired Nobody Knows
Nobody Knows was inspired by a 1988 Japanese incident known as the «Sugamo child-abandonment incident» (巣鴨子供置き去り事件, Sugamo kodomo okizari jiken). In short, what happened was that a woman abandoned her five underage children in a Tokyo Apartment for many months.
When officials entered the apartment, they found three severely malnourished children and the body of a deceased infant. Before long, Japanese authorities questioned the mother. Then, it came to light that the children had been alone for nine months and that a fifth child had been killed and buried in the woods.
Kore-eda took direct inspiration from the Sugamo child-abandonment incident when he made Nobody Knows. However, he did not focus on the specific details of the incident. Instead, he created an original narrative that focused on children’s emotional turmoil.
Hidden in Plain Sight | The Story of Nobody Knows
The film tells the story og the four siblings Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki. When suddenly abandoned by their mother, the four of them were forced to fight for survival while keeping their situation a secret from the outside world.
Why keep it a secret, you might ask. The elder brother, Akira, refused to seek help from child support services for fear of being separated. This decision led down a tragic path from which there was no return.
After their mother left, Akira took on the role of a father figure to his younger siblings, being very resourceful despite his young age. All the while, Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki also demonstrated great adaptability when learning to navigate life without adult supervision.
After months on end alone, though, the kids were beaten down by the harsh reality of life. Confined to a small apartment, isolated from the world, they faced hunger, loneliness, and fear while striving to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Overshadowing it all was the issue of coming to terms with their situation. Even for us, the audience, it was hard to wrap our heads around how four children could live alone for so long among neighbors, vendors, and indifferent father figures.
We won’t dive any further into the story's details. But we will say this much; the tragic fate of the four siblings was brought to life by tilted views of Tokyo suburbs, seasonal changes, and Japanese everyday life.
The story's catalyst was the mother’s abandonment, which led to a smorgasbord of social issues and critiques. In particular, her behavior brought attention to the importance of parental responsibility and the impact on neglected children.
Fallen Between the Cracks | Nobody Knows Analysis
Nobody Knows pointed a finger at dysfunctional tendencies in the Japanese family system. Japan’s hierarchical society greatly emphasizes the importance of family and parental responsibility, yet many families struggle to meet these expectations.
The story highlighted a lack of social support for vulnerable individuals or those falling between the cracks of Japanese society. In a country that worships individual achievement and competitiveness, the struggles of those who fall behind often go unnoticed.
In the absence of parental figures, the bond between the siblings became their lifeline. They relied on each other for support, companionship, and love. As such, the importance of families stood out as a critical aspect of Nobody Knows, no matter how dysfunctional. In this sense, it parallels the central theme in Kore-eda’s Shoplifters.
Nobody Knows showcased incredible resilience when the children were forced to face impossible challenges. Yet, despite their difficult circumstances, they found ways to survive and relied on their resourcefulness and determination.
This theme is central to Nobody Knows' message, highlighting the extraordinary strength within each of us. It commented on the unreasonable expectations in Japanese society. Individuals are expected to prevail no matter how much the odds are stacked against them.
More than anything, Nobody Knows exposed the complexity and the severity of social issues in Japan. It highlighted problems faced by vulnerable individuals and families, and raised questions about the need for greater social support and a more equitable society.
Nobody Knew Acting Like That
The story is the highlight of Nobody Knows, but it wouldn’t have worked unless the casting was spot on. Luckily, Kore-eda hit the nail on the head when selecting his actors. Nobody Knows will forever stand strong thanks to their performances.
Making a film that rested on the acting abilities of four children under twelve took guts, but it paid off in a big way. Moreover, it was an early hint at the later-to-be-argued similarities between Kore-eda and Yasujirô Ozu.
The four siblings are the heart and soul of Nobody Knows. All four actors conveyed unique personalities in a thoroughly convincible manner. Considering the gruesome topic matter they were served, these young’uns out-acted actors with ten times their experience.
Yūya Yagira played Akira when he was only twelve years old. His performance impressed the world and made him the youngest actor to ever win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Kore-eda’s Breakthrough Production
Kore-eda's cinematography was also highly praised. His technique and film style effectively enhanced the movie’s emotional impact and created a sense of realism, immersion, and intimacy with the characters.
The camera often lingered on the children, capturing their expressions and actions in intimate detail. Long, static shots emphasized their isolation and vulnerability, while handheld sequences created a sense of immediacy, drawing the viewer into their world.
The use of natural lighting, minimal editing, and the arrangement of the setting and props further reinforced the realism and the gravity of the situation. Seeing the siblings' living conditions in a genuinely unembellished manner was like witnessing a car crash; it was gruesome yet impossible to look away from.
Compared to Shoplifters - Kore-eda’s spiritual successor to Nobody Knows - the cinematography is grainy and rough. Granted, it underlined the grittiness of society and underbuilt realism. Still, the cinematographic craftmanship of Kore-eda’s later films put Nobody Knows to shame.
On the other hand, the sound design might very well be the most effective in any of Kore-eda’s films. It strengthened the unique atmosphere in Nobody Knows and accentuated the characters' emotional journey to a T.
Ambient noises, such as the hum of the city or the quiet rustle of leaves, created a strong sense of realism and immersion. In addition, the lack of a traditional musical score drew all attention to the children's experiences.
In hindsight, Nobody Knows showcased how Hirokazu Kore-eda developed his film style. The remnants of his indie film beginnings still lingered, but at the same time, he clearly honed his moviemaking skills.
Only four years before he’d make Still Walking, he gave us a promise of greatness to come. Today, Nobody Knows has long since proven to stand the test of time, even though - from a technical point of view – it has become slightly outdated compared to Kore-eda’s later films.
Final Verdict for Nobody Knows
In retrospect, Nobody Knows was an evident bridging between the rough film style of After Life (1998) and the strict cinematography of Still Walking (2008). Today, it appears somewhat visually unrefined. However, this worked to the film's advantage since it lifted the children’s inner emotions into the spotlight.
The dialogue, which would later become the staple of Kore-eda’s filmmaking, wasn’t quite as sharp as in his later works. That said, it still packed enough punch to make Nobody Knows an unforgettable movie-watching experience.
The strong points were the original story and the acting, which made Nobody Knows very impactful. It was a deeply affecting film that offered a rare glimpse into the world of those lost and forgotten by Japanese society. It's a little rough around the edges, but still a highly recommended watch.
Bright Lights Film Journal: Talking to Hirokazu Kore-eda: On Maborosi, Nobody Knows, and Other Pleasures Film Criticism: Why Nobody Knows - Family and Society in Modern Japan IndieWire: Talking About “Nobody Knows” with A Magician of the Cinema, Hirokazu Kore-Eda IvyPanda: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Nobody Knows’ Movie Analysis Essay Senses of Cinema: Nobody Knows (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004) The Association for Asian Studies: Nobody Knows The Japan Times: No easy answers from Kore-eda University of Hawaii: The Reality of Realism: The Morality of Responsibility In Nobody Knows Wikipedia: Sugamo child abandonment case