Where’s Mom? Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows

Reivew of Nobody Knows, Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda


There are four of them, plus mom—for a while. She’s just moved the family into a new apartment. The kids love mom, even when she implies they might be to blame for the family’s wanderings. One young child made too much noise at their previous residence, or so mom says. It’s the child’s fault that the family has been uprooted. Or is it?

Nobody Knows, the acclaimed 2004 film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, isn’t a mystery. It’s not a suspense film. It’s a study in survival—and in sin.

The children’s mother is less interested in caring for her offspring than she is in pursuing her own happiness. She disappears for days at a time. She lets her oldest child, Akira, know that she may have found a man, someone who won’t disappoint them and abandon them the way Akira’s father did.

“Did you tell the man you’re seeing about us?” asks Akira of his mother, Keiko. He’s seen this scenario play out before, and he senses that he’ll have to stand by as it plays out again. He’s not looking forward to it. Jaded at age 12, Akira’s eyes light up only when he thinks about attending school. Neither Akira nor his younger siblings are enrolled. Keiko’s orders are that all but Akira stay out of sight and promise to make no loud noises.

Keiko tries to project hope about her own situation, but it’s a false front. She longs for an adult companion, and she won’t let the responsibilities of caring for her children stand in the way of her pursuit. So she leaves money for Akira to take care of the family and then disappears. The children wait for her to return while Akira struggles to manage the dwindling funds.

Scripture tells us to care for our families (1 Timothy 5:8) and, as so far as we’re able, to care for others (Galatians 6:10). Nobody Knows, based on a true story, is a picture of what happens when a parent neglects her responsibility. But if Keiko is the primary culprit in Nobody Knows, what of the broader community? There are some who take an interest in Akira, yet no one intervenes to stem the decline in his, and his siblings’, situation.

There will be no false uplift in Nobody Knows. Critic Ken Morefield noted the film’s lack of sentimentality in its depiction of children. “Nobody Knows is a stunning and compassionate film from a director who earns emotional responses rather than wrenching them from the audience with sledgehammer techniques such as bombastic soundtracks and unrealistically smooth speeches,” he writes.  Yuya Yagira, the actor who played Akira, won Best Actor at Cannes, and the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or.

That the film shows children coping with increasingly dire circumstances without resorting to adorable behavior or humor to lighten the proceedings is the most “foreign” element of this Japanese film. But its truths are universal. Nobody Knows reminds us of the truth that people do terrible things for reasons that aren’t always clear. And that burdening children with adult responsibilities doesn’t lead to happy endings—not even in the movies.

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