- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Lingering over a bizarre case of child abandonment in Tokyo, the Japanese import “Nobody Knows” plays false with its own title. Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s refusal to imagine any sort of adult intervention in a situation where four children are left to fend for themselves by a feckless mother creates an impression of dramatic slack and abandonment that rivals her dereliction.

To be precise, quite a few people learn of the crisis she leaves behind after bailing out, in stages, on the children she has moved into a small apartment — three of them without informing the management. Only the mother, an incorrigible butterfly called Keiko (played by an effectively girlish, emotionally fugitive actress named You), and her dutiful eldest son, 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira), are known to the landlords. The younger siblings — Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) and Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) — are hidden in suitcases.

Once infiltrated, they’re reminded to be as quiet as possible and stifle desires to attend school or make friends with other children in the neighborhood. Months in fictional time and about 90 minutes in running time elapse before Mr. Kore-eda even acknowledges the acute impracticality of this setup and shows Akira taking Yuki out for a birthday stroll, striking up a couple of friendships and then accompanying all the children for a merciful outing.

Meanwhile, Akira has informed his own dad about their distress during his mother’s first extended disappearance. This earns him an emergency handout. Later, he appeals in a similar vein to one of Keiko’s ex-consorts, who may or may not be the father of another sibling.

Ultimately, utility men are knocking on the door and terminating service. Finally, the landlady blunders in and gets an eyeful of advanced juvenile squalor. Then she vanishes more whimsically than Keiko, evidently forgetting that she dropped by to inquire about the back rent.

Are we to believe that landlords in particular and Japanese in general feel no particular responsibility or self-interest when confronted with appalling circumstances on their property? What a country.

Shooting in genuine urban neighborhoods and using juvenile actors who don’t appear to be clever professionals hardly compensate for Mr. Kore-eda’s strangely desultory approach to the subject of family dissolution. As a result, an initially compelling situation, supposedly drawn from a press account, withers on the narrative vine.

The crisis grows less credible with every passing reel and season. The mother’s disappearance seems to extend over a year or so. The movie is nearing 21/2 hours before Mr. Kore-eda milks the enveloping misery for a heartless finale.

Mr. Kore-eda is a great one for red herrings: He plants early apprehensions about the gas burners and the terrace that dangle for the duration. Clearly, there ought to be ominous scenes of claustrophobic tension, illness and emotional deprivation, but he can barely pretend to cover that range of experience, given the ages of the cast members; yet another reason why the story needs some timely adult intervention, which might have helped to clear the fetid air, inside the apartment and inside the head of Mr. Kore-eda.


TITLE: “Nobody Knows”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, dealing with an extended case of child neglect and abandonment)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cinematography by Yutaka Yamazaki. Production design by Toshiro Isomi and Keiko Mitsumatsu. Music by Gontiti. In Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes


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