The Japanese movie Nobody Knows is the kind of movie that I didn’t necessarily enjoy that much while I was watching it, but that grew on me in retrospect. It has a haunting quality to it that for me couldn’t in the short term overcome the fact that it’s frankly quite dull most of the way (and we’re talking about a movie that’s well over two hours long, with subtitles), but that has caused the film to stay with me long after the mild discomfort of sitting through it faded.
Its languorous pace and its meticulous and portentous depiction of everyday behavior put me in mind of movies like Day Night Day Night and Elephant, but even at their slowest I was never as bored watching those movies, and overall I’d rate them both at least a little above this one.
Nobody Knows is loosely based on an actual case in Japan of a single mother abandoning her children. In the movie version, she has four children—the oldest being a twelve year old son—by at least two different guys. She moves into a new apartment, only admitting that the twelve year old exists. The little ones are later snuck in in suitcases and are forbidden to ever leave the apartment or step onto the balcony or anywhere they could be seen. Though the twelve year old is allowed outdoors—since his existence isn’t a secret—like the others he doesn’t go to school or have anything approaching a normal life.
Along the way it is either stated or implied that they’ve had to hurriedly move in the past when the extra children were discovered, that the mother has disappeared in the past for significant periods of time and left them alone, and that at least once the children were taken away and separated from each other by some kind of government agency that got at least some inkling of what was going on in the family. The last was experienced as a trauma by the children, which explains why they cooperate with their mother rather than turning her in or seeking to escape their present bizarre circumstances.
For the first half or so of the movie, almost nothing happens. These basic facts about the way they live are established, and we just watch them go about their business. Yes, there is some small character development going on, a little more insight into relationships here and there, an opportunity to settle in and contemplate what it would be like as a child to live like that, but I think 50% or more of that material could have been dropped without losing much of anything.
Once the mother seemingly leaves for good, the movie picks up a bit (meaning it’s slow rather than super slow, so it could lose maybe 20% rather than 50% of its material), and I became more interested. The twelve year old does his best to function as head of the family, but things deteriorate pretty rapidly. He either lacks the money or just doesn’t know about bills and bill paying, so one by one they lose electricity, water, and all utilities. Dishes pile up, they run out of clean clothes to wear, and the apartment takes on more and more the cluttered appearance of one of those old-woman-who-lives-with-77-cats” houses.
The twelve year old not only becomes increasingly lax about keeping up the apartment and such, but eventually ceases to bother enforcing the rule about keeping the other children hidden. And it doesn’t seem to matter much. They now run the streets during the day, but no one really takes much notice or cares. It’s not like their apartment has been under surveillance to make sure no one other than the two people who are supposed to live there ever go in or out.
Still, it’s clear they won’t hold out undiscovered very long. Not only are they no longer making much of an effort to hide their existence (though still none of the children ever take the positive step of turning themselves in to someone in authority who can do something about their plight), but they’re dropping farther and farther behind on the rent, and at least once someone from the landlord has come by the apartment seeking payment.
Perhaps the most emotionally effective scenes are those in which one or more of these children gets to experience aspects of “normal” life and “normal” childhood that most folks take for granted and don’t appreciate. Simple pleasures are anything but simple when you’ve had an almost Kaspar Hauser-like life. So just walking along the streets and looking at things in wonder, playing with neighborhood children, a baseball game—almost anything.
One thought I had watching it is that these people aren’t nearly as messed up as they should be, given what they’re doing and what is being done to them.
The mother is obviously insane if not evil, given the life she’s forced these children into for little or no reason (does every rental in Japan really have a rule saying you can have one child but not four?), yet she’s not visibly “off” by nearly as much as one would expect of someone who does something like that. She’s a bit of a kook, a bit frivolous, a bit of a hopeless romantic in thinking the next guy she hooks up with will be Prince Charming, but I’ve known a lot of people as nutty as her or more so, and they didn’t raise children in this fashion.
To the contrary, my experience has been that people who have a moderate amount of irrationality and kookiness in their beliefs and lifestyle tend to pull it together and be surprisingly functional when they have to, as far as just their basic responsibilities. Heck, I’m surprised people who believe in astrology or for that matter conventional religion are capable of living from day to day, given that their rational capacities seem to be out to lunch, but people compartmentalize. They’re irrational in ways that are a luxury, ways that make them feel better without impairing their ability to function. (At least not in immediate, obvious ways; I’m not saying in a deeper or longer term sense they’re not worse off by being nuts.) And they take care of business when they need to.
But she’s the opposite. She’s only a little immature or irresponsible in most ways, yet in the stuff that matters she behaves extremely bizarrely.
I mean, she seems to be able to support herself and the family financially (while she’s around at all), so she’s able to work and/or get money from men. She’s mostly friendly and nurturing toward the children (again, when she’s around), including doing at least some amount of home schooling type work with them. They respond very well to her, and laugh and enjoy her company.
Yet, she’s certifiable.
I just think she should be a lot more visibly crazy in how she behaves, how she interacts with people. I don’t know if the movie is unrealistic in that regard, or if she’s just of a psychological type I’m not used to.
For that matter, I would expect the kids to be far more damaged by this kind of life than they seem to be. They seem at least as bright and happy as the average children. When they finally are around other children, they don’t seem nearly as socially inept as one would expect.
They don’t know to seek help when the mother leaves entirely, but beyond that, they seem like reasonably together kids.
I do find it believable that as more and more people become at least vaguely aware that they’re on their own, no one actively intervenes. A lot of the people who know are children themselves, and they don’t see themselves as having any responsibility in the matter. Some people seek to help them in small ways, or become curious and seem to at least consider getting involved, but then take a “Well, it’s not really my business” attitude.
By the way, I later looked up the story of the actual case that inspired the movie, and it sounds like the mother was indeed a lot crazier. For one thing, there was a fifth child that died in infancy, and she kept the body wrapped in plastic with a deodorizer in a closet.
Anyway, Nobody Knows contains a thought-provoking story and a decent number of emotionally powerful moments, including a genuinely sad ending, but too often is grueling to sit through. It’s a movie worth seeing if you’re psychologically prepared for it. For me, it’s one of those movies that’s better to have seen than to see.