The new film Nobody Knows is the kind whose praise from Western reviewers is often based on admiration for an accepted yet vaguely defined intercultural "given" -- in this case, some kind of inscrutable Japanese grace. It's always dangerous to generalize any culture down to a tidy flavor (after all, Japanese cinema, to take one of its artistic facets, is both Kenji Mizoguchi and Takashi Miike), yet the patience and emotional subtleness of Hirokazu Kore-eda's picture belong specifically to a culture where hushed contemplation becomes the portal into the spirituality of things. In the beginning, a single young mother (pop star You) and her oldest son, 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira), move into their new Tokyo flat, literally smuggling the rest of the brood inside their luggage -- pensive prepubescent Kyoto (Ayu Kitaura), tantrumy 7-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and cherubic 5-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). Right away there's a calm sense of wonder to the camera's observation, intimate yet serenely detached, effortlessly building up for some family tragedy sure to come.
And tragedy will come, since the narrative is loosely based on 1988's "Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo." Not the tragedy of disintegration on a societal level, but a more intimate one, of the dissipation of childhood, of innocence gradually wilting in the face of harsh reality. The mother's scratchy lisp and party-girl demeanor signal an impulsive daydreamer, still on her own youthful quest for pleasure, thinking nothing of leaving her children (each from a different father) stashed away from the rest of the world inside the apartment, and then one night abandoning them altogether for a suitor. If the film is remarkably unjudgmental of her irresponsibility, it is quietly implacable about the consequences on the kids. Afraid of being separated if found out, they decide to stick together into a makeshift family, with Akira stuck between a premature need to play daddy and the tremors of adolescence making their way through him. Soon, faces are being crayoned in the back of unpaid electricity bills, and the tykes are forced to brush their teeth and do the laundry in the park's fountain.
Youth, invariably misspent, is a central motif of much of contemporary Asian cinema (most notably in the films of Tsai Ming-liang and Zhang Ke Jia), though children have played a vital role in Japanese film since the early days of Ozu. Kore-eda is one of the master's spiritual offspring. No tatami-level rigidity for him, yet his attentive contemplation has more than a few affinities with Ozu's belief in sublime stylistic demurral, further emphasized in the film's sensitivity to the passage of time -- indeed, the seasonal structure of Nobody Knows could easily fall into chapters tagged Late Spring, Early Summer, An Autumn Afternoon, etc. It also plays into the director's unique blend of "real" and "created" to enrich his narratives, an effect particularly effective (and affecting) when pointed toward his pet themes of memory, loss, and, here, the evanesce of childhood: the movie was shot in chronological order, and the growth spurts experienced by the young performers (a typically unstressed moment involves Yagira's changing voice) infiltrate a poetic documentary aesthetic into the images.
Several of Kore-eda's stylistic choices (close-ups of childlike curiosity, a lateral dolly that nearly outruns Akira) function as illustrations of the characters' unformed gaze, closer to the Satyajit Ray of Pather Panchali and the Hou Hsiao-Hsien of The Time to Live and the Time to Die than to Truffaut. Speaking of Truffaut, a brisk allegro, ukulele-strummed playground interlude invokes Small Change, although their carefree freedom remains a short-lived illusion as the money runs out and improvised supplies no longer prove enough -- basically playacting, like the mother's strenuous vivacity, to avoid facing an inner community on the brink of toppling over. Kore-eda's tragedy here, then, is far more devastating than in his previous After Life, because rooted in the quotidian: when Akira and Yuki make their way through the nocturnal Tokyo and simply stop to look at a monorail passing up above, the power of the shot comes not just from the two children's helplessness to the sheer largeness of the world, but also from how little of it they have been able to sample.
A cineplex-arthouse comparison here cannot help but come off as cruelly unfair, particularly when Hollywood is dreadfully underrepresented with as corrupt a piece as Constantine, though the contrasting approaches of the two works to the spiritual are revealing -- while Kore-eda locates transcendence in everyday life, hack Francis Lawrence treats the built-in themes of faith and belief as notional clutter in his CGI madhouse. An adaptation of the acclaimed DC graphic novel Hellblazer, the film version shifts the original, grim London setting to Los Angeles, and morphs the eponymous, chainsmoking demon-hunter from the comic book's cynical Sting lookalike to wispy Keanu Reeves, introduced cigarette-butt first on his way to drive a pesky devil out of a girl's body. All a day's work for Constantine, who knows he's sentenced to Hell but is trying to bargain his way into Heaven -- troubled detective Rachel Weisz wants answers to her sister's suicide, which opens up a whole new can of special effects, with the "Spear of Destiny" falling in wrong hands and the son of Satan trying to enter the world of the living. The notion of belief versus knowledge is intriguing but lost on Lawrence, who may look like a budding stylist to some eyes simply by not cutting every four seconds like most ex-music video stalwarts, yet his images remain bland, processed and, worst of all, utterly untouched by the sting of the characters' doubt. Only Tilda Swinton (decked into huge wings) and Peter Stormare (satanically white suit and sulfuric feet), each off in their own personal Oktoberfests, squeeze any fun out of the lugubrious affair.
Reviewed January 27, 2005.