'Nobody Knows' Tells Poignant Story Of Abandoned Family (2/05)

When the events that inspired the IFC release Nobody Knows emerged in 1989, they caused a brief flurry of outrage in Japan. Four children, aged four to twelve, had been abandoned in a Tokyo apartment with no water or electricity. When the youngest girl died, her older brother tried to hide the incident from authorities by burying her near an airport runway.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda recalls that "for people who were interested in child welfare in Japan it was a sensational story. At first reporters attacked the mother for her behavior, and dwelt on the squalid conditions the children were left in."

Kore-eda, a quiet, unassuming man with a wispy goatee, followed the story closely. "At one point the police suspected the boy of killing his sister. But when his other sister told them, 'My older brother was always nice to us'-the way she stood up for him, that's the moment when this whole incident, this scenario took shape for me." Kore-eda wrote a script from the boy's point of view, complete with an interior monologue that laid out the details for the story.

The director finished a draft in 1989, hoping to make it his debut feature. But other films came first, award-winning documentaries and then features, including Maborosi, a haunting account of a widow trying to reconcile herself to her husband's suicide, and After Life, which asked what memories will survive death.

Kore-eda never gave up on the project. "I had a lot of trouble getting this off the ground," he reveals during an interview in New York. "For me, the fundamental mystery of this story is why the boy would bury his sister at the airport. It turns out that's where his father worked. So my problem was to understand his psychology, his thinking, and work backwards from there."

Another problem was the oppressively grim details of the story. "But this life couldn't have been just a 'hell' for them," he continues. "There had to have been moments of joy and hope. My approach was to take the complex, fragile, very rich world of childhood, and sort of place it back-to-back with this dark tragedy. How you think about children or the world or society will determine how you interpret the film. Both aspects are there, the joy of childhood and also this dark shadow."

The director rewrote Nobody Knows three years ago, stripping away the narration and focusing on telling the story through behavior and action rather than words. While his version remains true to the general outline of the story, he completely re-imagined what took place. Furthermore, the Japanese legal system-which protects juveniles with anonymity-made it impossible for Kore-eda to contact the survivors to learn their accounts of what happened. "The truth is, if I had met them, perhaps I would not have been able to make the film."

What sets Nobody Knows apart from "message films" is its lack of sentiment or judgment. "I didn't want to present this as the mother's personal problem," he insists. "I wanted to make it clear that this was the result of social disinterest in the kids' plight. If at the end of seeing this you say, 'If only it weren't for that terrible mother...' my movie would be a failure. I might as well just work on a TV talk show. It was extraordinarily important to show her as an appealing, normal character."

Kore-eda cast a Japanese television star named You in the role. Finding children to play the four major parts required extensive auditions, and then long rehearsals. "None of them had any acting experience, or any camera experience either. So I spent three months getting them used to being near a camera. By the time we were ready to shoot, the camera could be right next to their faces and they would pretty much act normally."

The youngest cast member, Momoko Shimizu, was four years old. "Her focus and stamina would run out, so we tried to watch out for her. Other than that, there wasn't anything the children couldn't or wouldn't do. Well, because they're not professionals, they had some resistance to displaying anger. I had to rehearse that, get them to abandon their shame at expressing anger, for some of the scenes."

Like the director's other features, Nobody Knows takes place in a precise and extremely focused visual world. Small moments and gestures are the result of intense planning. "I didn't shoot this like a documentary," Kore-eda says. "Everything was scripted and storyboarded. I never showed the children the script, but I would feed them their lines. Before each scene, I would whisper to them, 'Why don't you say something like this?' And they would basically say what I wanted them to in their own words."

Kore-eda was protective of his cast, but he still treated the children like real actors. "I don't work with professionals by saying, 'This is a sad scene, so let's be sad here.' I wouldn't do it with the children either. I was very detailed with them, very specific in terms of my instructions." The director did acknowledge a few tricks. "If I tell someone to look here," he says, holding his hand chest high, "and then look here," lowering his hand to his knee, "it's going to look sadder one way or the other. I know that beforehand. It's an easy thing to use in setting up shots."

In one scene, Kyoko, played by Ayu Kitaura, becomes transfixed while playing with her mother's nail polish. Kore-eda's explanation for how the scene came about shows the intellectual rigor behind his methods. "When the mother is gone, the place that feels most like 'mother' to them is her dressing table. The scents that evoke your mother are the smell of her comb and her makeup, at least they were in my childhood. So in that scene I traced back to what do I most closely, most acutely identify with my mother. I actually shot a scene of Kyoko smelling her mother's comb, but I ended up not using it-the nail polish worked better."

Kore-eda's background in documentaries proved crucial during production. "The documentary technique that really informed the film is 'shoot and cut, shoot and cut.' I shot eight weeks in all, but only two weeks at a time, in each season. Actually having a rough cut of each season as I went, then I could plan ahead. If I shoot this in the spring, I can cut this other scene from the winter. That way the material I shot could shape the development of the script."

The director's patience, his connection to how children perceive life, and his sense of fairness have resulted in some of the most persuasive and moving child performances in years. Yuya Yagira, who plays the older brother, won the Best Actor Award when the film screened at Cannes in 2004.

Despite its potentially grim storyline, the film has struck a chord with audiences. It has been screening in Japan for half a year, a remarkable achievement. Kore-eda is characteristically restrained about his work's reception. "It's not a movie that posits, 'Oh, let's revise some specific child-welfare law.' What I'm getting instead are letters and e-mails from people who have seen the film saying, 'Kids that I used to ignore in my neighborhood, now I talk to them.' That means more than a change in the law."

Still, Kore-eda acknowledges that Nobody Knows is a breakthrough for him. "In the three films I made before this one, I was much more interested in pursuing the methodology of film, which in the abstract is very important. For this film, I was much more focused on the kids in front of me, and on the emotions in the story. I took a more straightforward relationship to what was unfolding before me, but I don't think I could have gotten to that point without the experimenting I did in those earlier films."

Kore-eda realizes that his work is in sharp contrast to Hollywood's steady diet of action blockbusters. "I'm trying to have a longer-term strategy than Hollywood. It's not that I think that Hollywood films are awful. But it seems that most of them start and end inside the movie theatre. The minute you see the closing credits, that's the end. All the instant gratification shuts down. The movies I hope to make start to grow inside you after the closing credits. In a way, they start the minute the movie is over."

*FJI Review: Nobody Knows

*FJI Review: After Life