Hirokazu Koreeda makes deceptively simple narratives that often feature wonderful performances from children. Nobody Knows has the feeling that it was loosely constructed – the camera is handheld, there are few shots that seem highly composed, and the narrative, though deeply affecting, seems to meander alongside the children at its heart. I suppose this is frequently the end-result of films seeking a sort of realism, but don’t be fooled. Koreeda’s film is expertly crafted and a gorgeous, nostalgic look at unsupervised childhood.
When 12 year-old Akira’s (Yuya Yagira) unpredictable young mother Keiko (You) leaves him and his siblings in an apartment to chase another boyfriend, the child must grow up quickly.
It’s hard to talk about a Koreeda film and not mention the performances. How do you get such great, natural performances from children? If there’s any trademark aside from the overarching narrative of a Koreeda film, it’s this. I’ve read Koreeda interviews before where he says, in varying ways, that he spends a lot of time with the young actors before the shoot, and then frequently scripts scenes to fit their personalities and habits of speech. It’s a bold, time-consuming way to work, but one that certainly yields fantastic results.
Though Nobody Knows is frequently a sad film, it’s also filled with the outbursts of random joy that characterize nearly any childhood.
Here’s a look at some of his frames, which feel naturally lit. The first could be fluorescent dominated, while the second seems like it’s lit almost entirely by the sun. Look at how little detail is seen through the door in that second image (you’ll see that again below). It’s not that Koreeda doesn’t care about lighting (some of the images are beautifully lensed), but that a blown-out exterior perhaps adds a sense of realism. Or maybe he chose to sacrifice lighting time in order to not make the kids sit around and wait to shoot:
Here’s a simple camera move from Nobody Knows. Koreeda starts by looking down on a bowl of rice. Handheld, he pans and tilts over to find Akira’s young brother, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura):
You see this pretty frequently in Nobody Knows: Koreeda will start on an inanimate object, usually in close-up when inside given the small confines of the apartment, and then find some human interaction with it. It’s kind of a reverse of what would be the more obvious move: start with Shigeru, and then, as he reaches, pan and tilt down with him to the rice. In that way, human motion would control the camera movement. By staging this the opposite way Koreeda’s film is often less controlled by the characters themselves, which is appropriate given the meandering-youth narrative.
You can see a commonality in some of the images below. Medium to extremely-wide shots, all with the backs of characters:
This approach seems to really fit Koreeda who rarely has his characters play to camera. He’s not a distancing director by any means, so those wide-shots (the last three from above in particular) are full of emotion in a way similar wide-shots in the work of many modern European directors might not be. The difference is partially context and general information, but also framing. Perhaps I’m a bit biased because that first photo from the four above reminds me of one from my own childhood, but each of these frames engender a sense of longing – it’s the proximity of the characters, coupled with their age and smallness in a larger world.
Take some films I blogged about relatively recently – Play, perhaps, or Only God Forgives. Both, in their own ways, want main characters who are emotionally distant, and both directors go about achieving this end result by, among other approaches, keeping said character in wide-shot so that we’re unable to relate to them emotionally. So what’s the difference?
Play’s mise-en-scene is as naturalistic as that of Nobody Knows but the layered, vague audio that accompanies each wide-shot redirects the viewer from character to character, keeping any one from being center focus.
Only God Forgives‘ mise-en-scene is the opposite of naturalistic, but that’s not the cause of the distance. Instead, it’s the wooden blocking (not a mistake: that’s favored by Refn) within the wide-shots that pull the viewer away from any attachment.
Nobody Knows achieves a pretty perfect harmony within its wide frames, one that reminds me of a scene I also blogged about quite recently from Museum Hours.