NOBODY KNOWS written, directed and produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda, with Yuya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan and You. 141 minutes. A Capri Films release. Opens Friday (February 18). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Hirokazu Kore-eda has one of the best sets of eyes on the planet. They're nothing much to look at, but they can see what it might feel like to die, to suffer the death of others or to abandon your children to the teeth of a big city.
Kore-eda's eyes have made him Japan's leading serious director. His 1998 film After Life became a premillennial touchstone around the world. In fact, if you toss out the anime and spooky horror movies, the world sees Japan through Kore-eda's eyes.
It's funny, because he almost lost them. Today he sits in a dimly lit room at the Intercontinental, working through an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival. Kore-eda dives right into interviews, thinking a long time before he answers, grabbing the air with his hands as he talks. It's all in aid of explaining his quiet shocker of a new film, Nobody Knows.
The story of four abandoned children trying to survive in Tokyo, it pushes past the tabloid premise toward a deep-focus view of family. Lead Yuya Yagira won the 2004 best actor award at Cannes. The first-time performer was 14.
Kore-eda, who wrote, directed, produced and edited Nobody Knows, made Yagira's performance the way a teacher makes prodigies.
"I keep experimenting with my method on each film," he says. "At the core of my approach is my experience in documentary filmmaking, how to create a relationship between myself behind the camera and those people who are in front of the camera.
"Although the roles were fictional, I tried to create a world where the camera was just present. It became a natural part of the children's environment, so I was able to elicit very natural responses and expressions."
He also shot the film in sequence, over a stretch most directors can only dream of.
"Because we spent a year in total filming it," he adds, "the camera records their actual growth as children."
He shoots a glance first at me, then at his translator, and confesses a little secret about his prizewinning actor.
"Now that he's been canonized by Cannes, I can tell you that he was actually the toughest to direct," he says of Yagira. "All the other kids actually caught on to their lines more quickly and remembered them better. When all four kids were together, I would start by shooting the younger kids so he would have extra time to learn his lines. I'd have to save his shots for last."
Nobody Knows is based on an infamous real Japanese case of child abandonment that prompted outpourings of guilt and recrimination about bad parenting. In the film, when Yagira's character insists that he wants to go to school, his mom's answer is, "Plenty of famous people never went to school."
"Man, you're a drag," she says to him eventually. "Hurry up and finish eating."
It's a fascinating portrait of a parent whose discipline consists of forcing her children to be more fun. When they're not, and she finds a marriage prospect elsewhere, she leaves. A whole sea of cultural currents converge in the film, including slackening family bonds, traditional taboos against single mothers and the Kawaii culture that celebrates youthful cuteness in women above all.
"The question of child neglect is a growing, pressing one in Japan today, although the situation that those kids were in was unique," Kore-eda says.
"What it does reflect, though, is the lack of community in Japan, the loosening of neighbourly and community ties. People may observe each other's behaviour and lives, but there's no will or impulse to know, to intervene."
Looking at both Kore-eda and his films, it's hard not to see him as a man with an overpowering impulse to know. His nails look bitten down. A scar runs up over his left eye. Little black bristles shoot out from his upper lip. He looks marked by the burden of life. But if the serious, probing accounts of life and death in his films Distance, After Life and Maborosi suggest a man who sees the big picture too clearly, he believes he's turned a corner.
"It's true, my last three films were centred around death," he admits. "And yes, one character dies in Nobody Knows, but fundamentally it's about the urge to keep on living.
"In my own self-analysis I would say it's not so much death that interests me but how we who have experienced death digest it, incorporate it and move beyond it to keep on living."
Which brings us back to his eyes. That scar etched into his face looks like a knife-fight wound, if Kore-eda were a knife-fight kind of guy. But when asked about it, he tells a story that surprises even his translator, who's known him for nine years.
"My mother worked in a scrap recycling place," he recalls. "Both my parents worked, so I was probably lonely. I went to visit my mother when I was about five years old and was running around on the huge pile. I got carried away and I nose-dived into the scrap."
He laughs at his own crazed exuberance. "There was a glass shard. A couple of inches off and I would have lost an eye."
NOBODY KNOWS (Hirokazu Kore-eda) Rating: NNNN
In Nobody Knows, Kore-eda proves himself a master at observing the brute truth of life and death. Drawing on a true story, he lays out a quiet shocker about four children abandoned in a Tokyo apartment by their childlike mother. They fight, they figure out how to feed themselves, they begin to form their own society.
Fourteen-year-old Yuya Yagira won the best actor prize at Cannes for his performance as the eldest, and while he¹s shockingly good, much of the credit has to go to Kore-eda. The director of After Life and Maborosi draws full, natural performances from actors as young as four. Even better, his focus on the Japanese detail of this story opens out to speak to common human nature.