Retro review: ‘Nobody Knows’


Do you know what it’s like to eat out of the trash? Do you know what it’s like to not even have trash to eat? The electricity is turned off, then the water; waste piles up in your toilet (piling up as long as there is food). The summer heat and winter cold induce a sickening feeling deep within your body. Weathering the elements of the world, amidst your body eating itself, reduces your capacity or desire to do anything. 

Imagine being a child enduring these circumstances. During the school year, you are scolded for falling asleep in class, your friends tell you of the smells radiating off your sickly warm body, and you desperately cover your body as much as possible as the dirt of your roach-infested house is caked on your cracked unclean skin.  

Until the school year ends and the summer arrives, you get home after class to discover you have been kicked out of your house, and now wander the streets in extreme heat throwing up your school lunch as your body can’t muster the strength to keep it down let alone digest it. You are wasting away, and nobody knows it.

The family having dinner.

These aforementioned circumstances are only some of what can happen to a person enduring poverty. When discussing my story of childhood poverty with friends who have also endured similar struggles, while there are many parts that are the same across the board, it is the one or two variations in their story that completely change the outcome of that person’s life. 

“Nobody Knows,” directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a fictionalized version of the story of the Sugamo child abandonment case in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward in the 1980s. The film tells the story of the children of the Fukushima family as they navigate surviving without their parents who have all abandoned them. What made this film so effective was being able to recognize the similarities or differences between what I had gone through and what the Fukushimas went through. Not having parents or any adult there to take care of you is one facet in cases of extreme poverty that would certainly break a child down and one I hadn’t been exposed to.

 I cried in moments when they were struggling to eat, drink or endure the summer heat. While many have not gone through such experiences, it was an emotionally cathartic experience to see some of what I had gone through be conveyed in film with respect to the truth. In seeing those circumstances I didn’t have to endure, I found my own extended capacity for sympathy. However, I did not feel grateful. When you feel grateful it is due to the thanks you owe someone or thing for helping you. One might say I should be grateful I didn’t have to go through what others might have but that is not the feeling I had. For once, I felt lucky. I felt lucky my siblings had not succumbed due to (although present in our experience) illness, abuse or the overwhelming elements. I felt lucky there was sometimes a reprieve from our economic circumstances. I felt lucky I had relationships with the teachers I had at school. While I shouldn’t feel lucky to get some good moments, I do, because I know others have even less or none. Through the Fukushimas story, we see how quickly one’s luck can run out.

Shigeru sits in a suitcase.

The film shows the struggles of being appointed a role to take care of others with no frame of reference as to properly do so. When I was a kid, I was tasked with taking care of my blind and paralyzed grandmother along with my siblings at various points. I related to Akira Fukushima’s (played by Yuya Yagira) role as the eldest sibling who is tasked with taking care of his sisters and brother, and feel what it is like to be emotionally compelled to take care of them. While the circumstances were certainly different, the film impacted me emotionally as I know what it was like to be a kid who simply wanted a regular childhood. Wherein the only struggles on my mind are Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards, video games and homework. For the less fortunate, that isn’t always possible. You feel heavily relied on and are conditioned to think that your only role in life is to serve, give and care for others. 

Without the slightest thought of what you want and no energy to dream of possibilities but rather you dream of escape, dreams of a life unlived or a different set of circumstances. Without the slightest thought of how to achieve such an escape or (because of the loss of everything) an intention to escape. If or when you begin to think of something you might want for yourself, you are either too tired or scared to go after it. You might even be ashamed that you want something for yourself that is outside of your assigned role of caregiver. So much so that when you finally break down mentally, emotionally and physically, you see you have given everything you had. All of yourself has been used up or spent and hopelessness or despair sets it. You literally become immobile in depression without the thought of how to move forward even when the opportunity to do so presents itself.

Akira is worn down.

Watching Akira struggle throughout this film to conserve resources to feed his siblings and to get them what they need woke up memories in me of hot summers and evaporated tears. The feeling of having no food for a prolonged time and the feeling of weakness that followed it. It reminds me of the accrued filth that was brought on by no means of cleaning ourselves or the environments we were forced to live in. Seven people in a single motel room, or eight people in a van, or simply sleeping in a park. His interactions with the adult characters in this film reminded me of the ones from my childhood. Disappointment found in parent figures who also grew up in extreme poverty, fear of authority figures, and happiness at the small help certain adults would be able to contribute here and there.  

Amongst the most emotionally moving scenes was the last major trauma the Fukushima kids had to endure. I won’t reveal exactly what that was here but it was among those moments in this film where I felt lucky that something like this didn’t happen to my family. Each of my siblings understands what it is to go through their own version of our childhood but what we all agree on is that we at the very least weren’t alone in going through it. When something terrible happened to one of us, we all felt the gravity of its reality. The emotional weight is too much to bear for a kid. Poverty allows for other kinds of traumas to occur. Child abuse of all kinds, limited access to ways out of the hole, deteriorated health (mental and otherwise) and more. Cases like the Sugamo child abandonment case should be known in order to inform how to prevent instances like this from happening in the future. This film experience reminds me of something I wrote in my review of “Mysterious Skin” during Pride Month: 

“Next time you’re in class, at work or at a social event, look around you – the kid right next to you in English class, or your really sweet co-worker who always takes extra hours, or that person who sings terribly at karaoke – any random person has an untold story.”

Any random person has an untold story, and many of their stories contain elements of true real-life horror. Things that way seem unbelievable to you at first. Things that you have no frame of reference to understand or relate to, but I implore you to be sympathetic to their plight in life. If we are able to have a larger capacity for not only kindness but compassion, then we may be better off reducing more cases like the one shown in this masterpiece.

Kyoko, Saki and Yuki sitting in the derelict apartment.

“Nobody Knows” is powerful in the ways it paints the story of a family that could very well be our neighbors, classmates or co-workers. It is the story of children suffering simply because they were born into an unlucky situation and because of the failures of those they were supposed to be able to rely on — their parents and society. No child or person should have to endure such situations, and it is up to us to make change. The film’s cathartic telling of Fukushima’s story teaches us that through compassion and kindness, we might be able to prevent more suffering than we put out. People already struggle with even listening, let alone helping enact change in the lives of others. But if we took the time to know someone’s story, we might be able to change or save lives.

John Carter Jr. is a member of Tiger Media Network with a love for movies and music.