Among a slew of foreign films watched this week, the one that stood out the most was a Japanese drama titled "Nobody's Knows". Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it tells the story of a struggling family in Tokyo, Japan. Delicate and affecting, it's destined to break your heart.
The film begins by introducing us to the close-knit Fukushima clan. Headed by a single mother named Keiko, this seemingly nomadic family of five are seen moving into a tiny apartment intended for two. With the youngest packed into a pair of suitcases and another waiting at the train station, they avoid the landlord's suspicions and settle into their new home. Their humble situation may not be ideal, but for the time being they are content. Their small measure of bliss is short-lived however, as one day the mother unexpectedly deserts them to go live in Osaka.
The abrupt abandonment truly comes as a shock in the narrative. Keiko is portrayed as a caring person, showering the young children with affection and providing their most basic needs. We soon learn however, that she harbors regret for unrealized dreams (she wanted to be an artist) and has engaged in various affairs that resulted in separate fathers for each child. Her desertion therefore feels like the result of disillusionment rather than hateful neglect.
Of course, it's still hard to muster sympathy for Keiko, as it goes against all notions of the maternal instinct. There's no excuse for her actions, so it's interesting that Koreeda instills some empathy. In doing so, he diverts the attention from her horrifying action to create something intentionally more palatable. Without lessening seriousness of the situation, he directs the film with a slight, but reassuring touch. Whether its the sparse but charming score, or the maturity of the now-father figure (eldest son Akira), the film evokes optimism amid the bleakness.
The casting of Akira is a major success, as Yûya Yagira carries the film remarkably well. Through his performance, the film transforms into a tale of survival and coming of age, rather than a traditional tearjerker. He's impressively adept at underplaying his emotions, maintaining a believable composure even when things take a turn for the worst.
Yagira's assured presence is truly the key attraction for this leisurely, patient film. With a running time of 141 minutes, the plot is most concerned with developing a complex portrait of this family and the city in which they reside. The lack of dramatic turning points may therefore test your patience, but the gradual layering of stresses results in a conclusion that genuinely earns its heart-breaking effect.
As its title suggests, we never fully understand why Keiko left her children. It's just one of those befuddling headline news stories we read about every day. What we do know is that the world is a harsh place for a large percentage of the world's population. Some are able to triumph against the odds, but others are unable to cope. Thus, snap judgments are often useless until you understand the context behind a person's actions. That context is captured beautifully in "Nobody Knows", a thoughtful film that reminds us of the tenuous balance between happiness and sorrow. May we all find our light.