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Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)

Diamonds in the Rough

One of the best, most memorable, most poignant and most upsetting films of 2005 (I know it's only February, but I guarantee this statement for the entire coming year) is the Japanese movie Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai). Inspired by an actual story of a woman who abandoned her four children in a Tokyo apartment, the movie explores tragedy and bliss, innocence and cynicism through the most influential of mediums -- young children.

Written and directed with absolutely superb skill by Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life), the movie follows the everyday delights and tribulations of four children: responsible, reserved Akira (YŻya Yagira who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for his performance); quiet and shy Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura); rambunctious Shigeru (Hiei Kimura); and cutie-pie Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). The four children are an exceptionally tight knit unit especially due to the fact that they have absolutely no contact with the outside world; they are not allowed to go to school, not allowed to play, or even go, outside, and they are not allowed to interact with any other human beings besides their siblings and their mother.

This is because their mother Keiko (the enigmatically named You) doesn't want to (or perhaps doesn't want to make her children have to) deal with the stigmatism that goes along with having children out of wedlock. Indeed, each sibling has a different (deadbeat) father; this term is to be taken loosely as these men are not good enough to be awarded with the title of 'father', something like 'semi-friendly giver of sperm' is more appropriate. At the beginning of the film, you are shown that there are very serious social repercussions due to neighbors discovering this fact as the family was forced to leave their previous apartment because of it. Thus, in the first scenes, Keiko sneaks her two youngest children into their new apartment in suitcases lest the neighbors or landlord balk at their origins.

While the kids may be locked up like bad secrets, their whimsical, free-spirited and wholly irresponsible mother comes and goes as she pleases. One day Akira wakes up only to find an envelope full of cash and a note telling the twelve-year old that he is in charge of his three other siblings and the apartment until his mother's return (a date which is not specified). Thus, the children's adventure, whether good or bad, begins.

Kore-eda strays away from making this a made-for-television drama; there are no indictments of child abuse, they are no hysterical neighbors, and the children are, for the most part, very happy. They take part in all the things 'normal' children do -- they draw; play with dolls/action figures; watch television; giggle, etc. They even, touchingly so, adhere to their mother's strict rules regarding not going outside (for fear that they be seen) even when she's been gone for months and months and likely never coming back. Of course, life is a bit less sheltered for Akira, the only one of his siblings who is allowed to go out into the world.

The most indelible and heartbreaking of scenes occurs on Yuki's birthday. The youngest child is convinced that her mother will return if only because it is her birthday. When she refuses to listen to her siblings' tactful indications that their M.I.A. mother wasn't scheduled to return as yet, Akira finally indulges Yuki's soft-spoken yet determined demands and sneaks her out to the train station to await her arrival. When Akira offers up quiet, well-padded shoes, Yuki, like the child she is, refuses and goes instead for her favorite slippers: pink slip-ons which emit Disney-like squeaking noises at every step. The next scene shows brother and sister, hand-in-hand, making their way down a quiet, dark street with Yuki squeaking happily and innocently the entire way; the audience knowing that she will find no maternal solace at the end of her trek.

Kore-eda does an amazing job of taking their innocence and slowly infusing it with disillusionment. The result is raw and disturbing. But like a master, he never strays from this fine balance to tip the scale towards melodrama and sentimentality. All the actors deliver amazingly fresh performances, which only serves to make the film's story that much more realistic and difficult to digest. Nobody Knows is an absolute must-see.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5