Dr. Seri Luangphinith

The Reality of Realism: The Morality of Responsibility In Nobody Knows

The Reality of Realism: The Morality of Responsibility in Nobody Knows

by Everett McKee

The (2004) Japanese drama Nobody Knows comes at a shock to audiences who learn the story of the film is based on true events that had occurred in Japan during the late 1980’s. Morality and responsibility become the central themes of both the film and discussion surrounding the topic of adulthood. Following the lives of four under age children, under the leadership of the eldest sibling, they are abandoned by their promiscuous mother who is eager to fulfill personal needs rather than her parental obligations. The film takes the perspective of young Akira who must support his younger siblings Kyōko, Shigeru and Yuki as their mother's abandonment slowly sets into the characters the further time goes on through the story. Through a cinematic run time of 141 minutes director Hirokazu Koreeda slowly drags the audience through each passing second. Many reviews have had positive feedback on this slow stylistic way of storytelling. “Midnight Eye:Visions of Japanese cinema” praises this style for the way in which “the director has managed one of those rare feats, putting actual children on screen.” It is the minor details that are drawn out over time which help envelope the audience into the positions of these children. First setting the audience into a small apartment that the three younger siblings are confined to because they are not allowed to reveal themselves to others because of incidents in prior living arrangements. Continually building on the main element of this film, director Hirokazu Koreeda captures the audience attention with particular use of scene by scene construction and development of intimate character thoughts without hearing or getting into the minds of characters. This is what helps to involve the audience in the dark and macabre situation of the children.

Other reviews also commend the use of the progression of time within the film which helps to build upon the melodramatic events and mood. Commentation from “A.V. Club” discusses how the film Nobody Knows is a “long series of episodes that slowly progress from lightly comic to bracingly sad as the situation deteriorates.” This is a clear theme used throughout the film to submerge the audience within the emotional context of the children's lives. The film first opens with a scene of two characters on a train at night. This helps to set the despairing tone of the rest of the story. Character one in the scene is a boy who appears to be in his early teen years. He is dressed in ragged attire filled of holes and stains, which shows a past of hardship without directly addressing it. He sits next to a pink suitcase which also show signs of degradation, with brown tape that is fading as well as the pink color of the suitcase diminishing in color. The second character is shown through distorted camera angles such as a reflection in the window. The character is wearing white and is much more clean in contrast to the boy. The second character is unclear but can be assumed to elevate the physical disparity of the young boy.

An important topic Laura Mulvey discusses within her Gender And Race piece is the "contrast to woman as icon, the active male figure" (Mulvey 173). In the film Nobody Knows the audience is immediately hooked to the young protagonist Akira. “The Washington Post” commends the young actor Yuya Yagira who “won the acting prize at the Cannes film festival... Watching him, you'll feel like handing him the trophy yourself.” The gripping suspense of the opening train scene of a much older and very different Akira looms in the minds of the audience the entire film. Knowing full well the destination the film is taking the audience the real drama is in the pieces that connect the fist scene to the second which is clearly a contrast of after the character's journey and then starting the story from a previous point in time. Through this the film demands the audience explore not only the interactive world Akira adventures through, but also the "mirror recognition, in which the alienated subject internalized his own representation of his imaginary existence" (Mulvey 173). Akira's inner struggle is slowly unfolded before the audience as the longer the mother stays away and the more work Akira puts in to support his siblings gets called to question. We watch as his feelings between his duty to his family and duty to himself tears him apart and subsequently his family as well. This reflection between wants and needs is continually used throughout the plot of the story as a plot device to continually hook readers to the continual list of issues and conflicts.

The director also uses long timed shots to push dramatic tensions forward throughout the film. This is the most crucial element the director has as it really captures true emotional reaction out of the audience. Addressing emotional situations by using the audience's imaginations is what elevates the tension. Two particular scenes that exemplify the use of audience imagination are when Akira is sitting on the table counting money and when Shigeru’s toy falls on to the balcony. Although very simple in scene construction and extremely vague of dialogue what we get is an emotionally packed decision between duty to oneself and to one’s family. The first scene of Akira counting money is during a time in the film where the money fund is almost completely depleted due to his previous impetuous spending.

What is most interesting about these scenes is the lack of any emotional signifier. Normally a musical score or dramatic dialogue would fill the scene with things that would directe specific emotional reactions out of the audience. However, in this particular directing style Hirokazu Koreeda manipulate this vast emptiness and lack to address the larger concerns throughout the movie while avoiding labeling characters as a specific type. Tobias’ although he analysis the setting of the children and relation of mental constraints to their mother, he puts emphasis on the way in which adaptability of the children when, “You takes off to pursue her happiness regardless, leaving her offspring with a meager sum”. He discusses how they must adapt to the situation however, I believe this shows a much deeper question between the audience and the characters.
Although we may see Akira make questionable choices what the lack of emotional direction does is keep our thoughts neutral to these actions as the audience will continually be enforced with the idea of the dire situation Akira faces and how he himself is still a child to the cruel world he is struggling within. In this scene Kyōko willingly gives her life savings to her brother and in few words we see the self sacrifice of putting her family before her own needs.

The second scene is when Shigeru drops his toy on the balcony and continually debates whether or not to retrieve it. As time goes on we watch his battle between wanting to retrieve his toy or follow the rules and not reveal himself so that his family can continue to live in the apartment. This becomes a repetitive scene as he eventually decides to retrieve his toy. The use of children making larger then life decisions is a continual struggle within each of the characters. As an adult audience member what this does for the audience is to address the conflict between inner and outer duties. As the audience watches these young children make these drastic decisions and actions it asks the personal question could an adult do the same and or what they would choose between personal desires or obligations. This is what sets up the distinction between the notion of adulthood and the Peter Pan world that is only made possible through the notions of responsibility.

April 2016

About the Author: Everett McKee is a native to the island of Oʻahu. As a graduate of the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo he had focused particularly on chaucerian texts. Further works of his interest focus on military history of Chinese culture as well as Japanese society. As an avid scholar he continues to study strategic and philosophical works. Through metaphysical and interpersonal ideals he envelops himself in procuring the major issues that plague humanity. In hopes that his studies might one day lead to solutions that will alleviate mankind from the struggles of animosity. His journey across the world to experience new cultures is what he hopes will accomplish his quest for ultimate knowledge. As he has learned through a great philosopher, the circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.