Dare mo Shiranai / Nobody Knows walks the same ground of one of the best, in my opinion, Ghibli films –Grave of the Fireflies. Both stories involve a young boy, somewhere between being a child and a teenager, who must become an adult in order to care for his sibling(s) in the absence of parents. Grave took place during a war, as the world and people around the characters became increasingly indifferent to them as survival became more and more difficult. Dare mo Shiranai, on the other hand, takes place in modern Tokyo, and the family circumstances are the problem. The story is about four children, each with the same mother but different fathers, who are forced to fend for themselves after their childish mother abandons them, leaving a note and an unsatisfactory amount of money. It is based on a true story which, in fact, is even worse than the one described in the film.
The film has some of the best acting by children I have ever seen. The film was shot chronologically over the span of an year, and the care that went into the direction of this film is evident. Yagira Yūya particularly deserves credit for his portrayal of the main character. There isn’t an excessive amount of dialogue of this film, and much of the emotion and heart of the film is carried by other means.
There is a moment, for example, when the main character waits at a payphone for the man on the other line to find his mother. The time slowly ticks away and he adds fresh quarters appropriately, but as we see the number of coins dwindle, we already know that he won’t be speaking to his mother, and it’s hard to not be affected by Yagira’s subtle, painful reaction. In another scene, he watches a baseball game and is invited to join by an adult, as there is a missing teammate. For a brief few minutes, we watch the boy escape from his life and become a regular child, and it almost satisfies us as much as it does him – yet throughout a sense of restraint tells us that it is just an illusion, and that is heartbreaking.
It’s impossible to give enough praise to the perfect performance that the director has managed to get from an untrained child actor. He gives the perfect impression of a child that has been forced to act beyond his years out of necessity – yet is still a child inside, yearning to do things like have friends, play at an arcade, and play sports.
The lack of overt sentimentality is what makes the film as powerful as it is. There are no sweeping moments of grief nor are there many tears shed (on-screen). The sadness in the film is elicited from, not forced onto, the viewer, and that makes it far more moving. The soundtrack is a muted one, most of it occupied by minimalistic guitar pieces which sound neither depressing nor optimistic.
Like many movies in the “depressing” genre, this isn’t a film that is always easy to watch, nor will it remain in front of your television for constant re-watching. However, it is the kind film that I recommend for everyone, and I assure you that you will be glad to have seen it, even if it isn’t the most cheerful film.
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