by Jaimie Grijalba
While based on an impactful true story that happened in Japan during the twilight years of the 1980’s, the film quickly comes forward and presents itself as based on those events but entirely fictionalizing what was already an unbelievable, and much more grimmer story. A family arrives to an apartment complex: a mother and his 12-year old son arrive to present themselves to the tenants, and later their luggage and furniture is put in place inside their new apartment, but along comes the surprise and trick that three other kids are hidden inside big luggage cases, the other kids of this woman who have to hide themselves from the tenants that don’t like children nor allow to that many people to live in them. The film quickly presents us with the oldest kid as the most mature person in the entire place, as he is the one that takes care of his brother and sisters, as well as the mother being introduced as entirely useless in the context of nourishment and upbringing, as well as being a complete immature by the way she laughs it up any serious situation, or anything that requires her complete attention is put aside (just like how just a little later into the film abandons her kids) so she can have fun.
The title of the film is an indictment as well as a statement of what the kids are in the reality that they have to live day to day: nobody knows about them, nobody must know if they want to survive, and here is the strangest element of the whole situation that is carefully presented by the masterful director Hirokazu Koreeda… The mother leaves them alone but still instills them with rules about their behavior if they want to stay in the apartment: they must not leave the place, not even come close to the door nor close to the veranda, and they have to stay quiet so the neighbors don’t suspect a thing… yet even after all those practical advices, she leaves them alone and the issue is how that immature and even potentially chaotic system that is left to its devices manages to survive with the same rules being applied, and with the older kid instituting his legitimate use of force and enforcing of the rules that his mother taught him. If they roamed around they’d probably be left in an orphanage and her mother would have trouble if she ever was caught… but then if she is that quick to abandon them yet still has the precaution so “nobody knows”, what is the true motivation here? Is that love? Care? Does it even count?
“Nobody Knows”… How easily could’ve this movie been titled “Nobody Cares”? Even though we pretend that if somebody would find about these kids in the context of the film itself (and not in the context of the real story), and we could pretend that police would take care of them, we know that their destiny isn’t to be put in new families so they can recover themselves, and there are many reasons, but the chief one is that truly nobody cares about kids in situations like these of neglect, poverty and rebellious anarchy in which they seem to live in. And first of all the reasons is that they don’t really have nothing to recover from, and while some of them might suffer more than others (pointing out to one of the most hurtful sequences of the film), they are used to being like this since they were born and the context here is important, as the situation and work that their mother gets into doesn’t allow them to have anything better than the enclosed and tight situation in which they find themselves, and thus have found themselves not knowing any better life and they seem happy and satisfied with it.
The film is over two hours long and it spends most of that time not in conversations, not in the constant nagging or the crying from the kids that can’t see their mother, but out of the small moments and the small looks and interactions between the kids. We see the older kid cooking, walking to the shop, and taking care of a crying sister, trying to quiet down his small brothers fighting and screaming, confronting the adult world instantly achieving a maturity that is unknowable by any other character in this movie. It is in these moments that Koreeda poses his camera and lets it roll, he knows that the moments need their time and in that space they achieve a superior meaning even though they truly might not mean nothing for a common viewer. While the film is entirely serious, specially as it approaches its ending, it’s not deprived from its funny and even hilarious moments, specially those that feature the smaller kids, that bring themselves to do the most outrageous things.
But the main focus of the film is the older kid, who lives through the harshest process that brings him way too maturely out of childhood and into adulthood. He has to quickly come to terms with the situation in which he is now presented and not only that, but he has to come forward and pass through all the events that happen in puberty without a careful guidance that school or a parent would give, and thus we see him committing mistakes once again and again, and thus the film putting together a careful portrait of growing up in the worst conditions but at the same time putting together a moral and even ethic portrayal of those events. While the original tale is mostly grief and tabloid fodder, and ending originally with much more death and definite answers than what the film dares to describe and even portray or give, and interesting on its own, it doesn’t dare to talk or give a proper face to these kids and what they lived through, something Koreeda puts his only interest in.
The film is visually constructed in a very interesting way, starting with the way that it films inside the apartment, with an obstructed frame, with elements that come into the foreground and obstruct the faces, the space filled with the nothingness that is truly inside their souls, the abandonment as if it was present in the things: trash, corners, mirrors; to represent that void that never goes away. That is easily contrasted with the much wider shots that are used in any place outside the apartment, with the filmmaker cleverly giving preponderance to the wide and long shots that give the characters a central importance, but at the same time rendering them small, as if they could easily be lost in the landscape, as if nobody truly cared. Nobody knows what the kids in the street are doing, what they are living inside their houses, nobody cares, nobody knows what’s going on and no one will ever know as long as the system continues to pressure families into poverty. That is the political indictment inherently present in the title of the film, a powerful statement that was made in 2004 and it still rings true in 2015, as the importance of childhood not as this golden age that should be remembered, but as something that we should take care of: not only of our own, or the one of our children, but the one of those kids out there. The film incredibly portrays a situation that could be happening, and that it’s its most incredible quality, its realism, its gut-wrenching realism.