Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:06 pm 
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A compelling portrait of the world of abandoned children

Nobody Knows (Dare no shiranai) is painful to watch. It's a story you won't shake off, depicting the most defenseless of humans -- four young children, the oldest only twelve -- trapped in growing poverty and abandonment. It's a process-narrative of devolution that makes you feel helpless and angry and sad. It's saved from mawkishness by the natural energy of the children playing the roles of the four kids. And if it survives, its not because of its treatment of a social issue so much as for its evocation of the precise details of childhood.

There are two main subjects here. One is criminal neglect: the story is loosely based on events that happened in Tokyo in 1988. The other is the private, often secret, lives of children. Koreeda began as a documentary filmmaker and this seems to have given him exceptional skill in working with people and capturing their natural reactions. The winning, tragic children in Nobody Knows, four half-siblings with different fathers and the same childish, selfish mother, never seem to be acting and often no doubt aren't. Nonetheless the subtlety of expression in the delicate, mobile, beautiful face of the older boy, young Yûya Yagira, was such that it won him the Best Actor award at Cannes last year.

Also important is Koreeda's gift for detail, his meditative examinations of fingernails, feet, a toy piano, video games, pieces of paper, objects strewn around a room, the hundreds of little soft drink bottles that are everywhere in Japan, plants, dirt, all the small things children see because they're closer to the ground. And the things they accept because they're defenseless and innocent, but also incredibly adaptable.

Akira, who's only ten and whose voice changed during year spent making the movie, is in charge. As their mother's absences become lengthier and the children finally seem to be abandoned for good, money runs out. Akira is captain of a sinking ship, a somber duty, but he and his little sisters and brother keep finding time to laugh and play.

Koreeda's a passionately serious filmmaker: the two better known of his earlier fiction films deal with death and loss and here he considers as a given the worst of human carelessness and indifference both by society and the individual. Maborosi (1995) was a homage to Ozu but without Ozu's sense of social connectedness; it begins with an isolated couple in the city and chronicles a young widow's second marriage in the country through a slow pastiche of observed daily scenes where event and even dialogue are minimal concerns. The content of Maborosi is too thin, but the images and color are exquisite and the sequences of natural, unrehearsed-looking scenes achieve an impressively rich, beautiful, zen-like calm. After Life (1998) uses actual recollections of older people talking to the camera to build up a fantasy about dead souls held temporarily in a bureaucratic pre-Heaven limbo being asked to choose a single favorite memory to take with them into eternity: the effect is perplexing, thought-provoking, charming, and with great economy of means, cinematic.

Nobody Knows isn't as brilliant or resolved as After Life or as exquisitely visual as Maborosi, but for all its rambling excessive length it delivers a quantity of undigested patient misery and joy that will evoke such noble antecedents from the classic world of cinematic humanism as Clément's Forbidden Games, De Sica's Bicycle Thief, and the homeless father and son living on garbage in Kurosawa's Do-des-ka-den.

What's new here though is a sense of the encompassing otherness of big modern cities and the stoicism and resiliency of childhood (and perhaps also of the Japanese personality). Keiko, the childish, weak, spoiled mother (played effectively -- we instantly hate her -- by You, who's some sort of pop star in Japan), sneaks three of her four children into the new apartment and tells them they can't go out, can't show themselves even on the balcony. (In the real event, this was largely because they were illegitimate and had no papers, but here the explanation is that their noise may get them evicted.) Only Akira can leave, and she won't let him or the others go to school. They're prisoners of their urban anonymity and of an impersonal contemporary society.

As in Andrew Berkin's Cement Garden, the children also pretend everything's okay to escape the cruelty of the social welfare system. We watch agonizingly -- and many writers say the movie's somewhat too long; it does feel thus especially during the first hour -- but this time Koreeda's world is more direct and specific than before and there's plenty of talk. The children chatter among themselves. Eventually they go out and mix a bit by day with other children. Akira even talks to himself; he has to, because there's no adult coaching him so he must impersonate an elder adviser.

Whatever its roughness and excess, Nobody Knows is intense and powerful filmmaking. Koreeda has put his whole heart and soul into this movie and with it achieves an experience you can't shrug off. Nor will you forget the kids, especially the beautiful boy, Yûya Yagira, who may be growing inch by inch into a star even as we speak.

6 March 2005

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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