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Innocence and abandonment in modern Toyko

Yya Yagira stars as Akira in the Japanese film Nobody Knows, showing this Wednesday and Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.
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What I like about the title of “Nobody Knows” – the title is apparently a literal translation of the original Japanese – is its universality. Nobody is excluded from at least one form or another of the ignorance that pervades Hirokazu Koreeda’s touching, tragic film.The unawareness of the four children, abandoned by their mother and confined to a Tokyo apartment, is innocent and sympathetic. The children – ranging in age from 12-year-old Akira to Yuki, who is perhaps 4 – have no idea when their flake of a mother, Keiko (You), might return from her purported work trip. Though Akira (Yûya Yagira) steps forward to handle finances and care of his siblings, he hasn’t the maturity or skills for such a task.

Over the months of the mother’s absence, the apartment devolves from a state of attempted organization to out-and-out putrescence. Both phases are equally disturbing: watching Akira tallying up the bills, knowing the effort at fiscal housekeeping will end in futility, is as heartbreaking as seeing 10-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) escape the filth and despair by holing up in a utility closet. Knowing nothing but that their childlike impulses – to play with other kids, to go outside, to eat – are being denied, the younger children just sink. Akira, though, pushed toward a wobbly adulthood, teeters between grown-up instincts and adolescent urges, becoming the most complex and compelling character. (Yagira’s performance earned him the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, the youngest actor so honored.)The most willfully clueless character, of course, is the mother, Keiko. At the film’s opening, she soldiers through the difficult terrain of being a single mother of four in a country which frowns on broken families. The circumstances aren’t good; two of the children have to be smuggled into their new apartment in small suitcases to keep their presence secret from the landlord. Still, Keiko keeps the children laughing, the rules enforced. But it becomes too much. The handwriting is on the wall one night when she comes home drunk; the next day she is gone, leaving the briefest of notes.What of the society around them, fathers and neighbors and social services? All are guilty of one level of ignorance or another. Most aggravating is the landlord, who has good reason to know that things are not right with their tenants. But even as she carries her dog from floor to floor, she turns a blind eye to the human suffering. The grocer who has regular contact with Akira should be suspicious, yet does nothing. Akira visits two of the fathers, including his own, seeking only financial assistance. He barely gets that.

Keiko has done such a good job of secluding the family that relatives, schools, neighbors and social service agencies have lost track of them. In this, “Nobody Knows” is reminiscent of another excellent recent film, “Dirty Pretty Things,” in which an immigrant population loses itself in the enormity of London. But “Nobody Knows,” based on a true story, offers a sharper, though quiet, criticism of the surrounding society.Also on the list of the ignorant is the audience. Hirokazu Koreeda has presented a piercing but balanced story, more observational than alarmist or accusing. Most of the film is dominated by small bits of everyday life rather than the grandly shocking. But as much as Koreeda puts us in the children’s shoes, we are left with feelings of helplessness and bewilderment. How, in an ultra-civilized place like Tokyo, could four children be cast adrift and left there?There is no satisfactory answer. Indeed, nobody knows.



“Nobody Knows” will show at The Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday and Thursday, April 27-28, at 7:30 p.m. Running time: 141 minutes. Classified: PG-13.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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