Trauma in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004

How to represent trauma? This appears to be the overriding question in the movie Nobody Knows, or Daremo Shiranai, by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Nobody Knows depicts the lives of four children who were left abandoned by their mother. The oldest child is the 12-year old boy Akira who is given the task of looking after his younger siblings. Used to the frequent absence of their mother, the beginning of the movie shows the children coping well with daily tasks of running the household.

However, as the absence of the mother turns into weeks and months, the movie also depicts that the life of the abandoned children is in a state of transition. The movie effectively represents the passing of time by focusing on small and detailed observations. In one scene, the eldest daughter holds up her hand to look at the nail polish her mom applied before she left. The same hand can be seen later when all but a tiny segment of the nail polish is visible. In other words, the vanishing of nail polish signifies the mother’s abondement of her children, but also, it signifies the child giving up hope that she will return. The nail polish reappears later in the film, when the mother returns one last time to pack her belongings. Instead of applying the bright red polish to her nails, the daughter paints her hand to make it look as if she is injured. Here, the polish signifies blood and the pain of alienation.

Filmed over the course of one year, the 2 hour 20 minute movie depicts the children not only growing older with regard to narrative of the movie, but also, growing older in a bodily sense. Thus, Nobody Knows not only focuses on the psychological, but also the physical transformation of the child. This transformation is most apparent in Akira, played by Yuya Yagira, who, in the process of the movie, turns from a boy into a young man. For depicting this transformation so realistically, Yagira won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival in 2004. In the movie, his hair is getting longer, he adopts a defiant teenager attitude, but also, he is getting physically bigger and his voice is breaking up. The representation of time in Nobody Knows has the eery effect that the movie appears to be like a documentary film, depicting the lives of real children in their struggle to survive.

The filmmakers have adapted various cinematographic techniques to represent life from the subjective position of the child. The height of the camera rarely exceeds more than one meter, which, in the history of Japanese cinema and visual culture refers to Yasujiro Ozu’s signature tatami perspective. In Nobody Knows, the low height of the camera is used to stress the subjective vision of a child. Similarly, by using a long lens with a wide open aperture, the narrow depth of field emphasis an almost dreamlike perception of everyday minutiae.

In above example, the cinematography of Nobody Knows appears to borrow from the work of the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Not only did Kawauchi work on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer, but her photographic methodology of focusing on detailed observations from a child’s perspective appears to be the visual strategy applied in the film itself. In psychoanalytical terms, this photographically fragmented view of the world also refers to a psychologically fragmented memory of childhood. In other words, the photographic technique of tight framing and soft focus underlines the very process of remembering childhood.

Untitled, from the series of “Cui Cui”, 2005

As the director Hirokazu Kore-eda points out at the beginning of the movie, the plot is loosely based on a real life event that took place in 1988. The ‘affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo’, was, in reality, far more horrific than it is depicted in the movie. While in 1988, the youngest child was brutally beaten and eventually killed by two friends of the oldest son, in the movie the youngest child tragically dies in an accident. A fifth child, never referred to in the movie, died shortly after birth and was wrapped in blankets and stored in the flat by the mother. While the cinematographic techniques of soft-focus and close-ups evoke a romanticized version of childhood, the actual trauma inflicted and experienced by the children of Sugamo is completely sidelined in the movie.

In psychoanalysis, trauma is not necessarily referring to a horrific event, but rather, it describes the subject’s failure to place an experience in the symbolic realm. In his Seminar I, Jacques Lacan describes trauma as following:

“Trauma, insofar as it has a repressing action, intervenes after the fact (apres coup, nachtraglich). At this specific moment, something of the subject becomes detached from the symbolic world that he is engaged in integrating. From then on, it will no longer be something belonging to the subject. The subject will no longer speak of it, will no longer integrate it. Nevertheless, it will remain there, somewhere, spoken, if one can put it this way, by something the subject does not control.”

Trauma is therefore characterized by not being able to articulate, nor being able to represent the experience retroactively. The complete disavowal of any physical or psychological violence in Nobody Knows is therefore a conscious act of recognizing that trauma is unrepresentable. Hirokazu Kore-eda thus comments on a deeply felt human fear: the dread of loss of the mother is commonly thought of as the very first trauma experienced by the subject. This unrepresentability of trauma is even recognized in the very title of the movie: because trauma cannot be situated into the symbolic realm, ‘nobody knows’ about the actual experience of the child.

Nobody Knows is available as DVD. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.

If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.

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One thought on “Trauma in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows

  1. Hi Marco.

    Great blog! I checked some other entries and found them really interesting. Still have lots of catching up to do…

    As for this one I was especially interested in your observations on the depictions of body in the movie. Last year I did a paper on some of the writings of hibakusha and found out that the body was a really powerful symbol used to express the horror of atomic bomb experience that was inexpressible in any other way. But besides very disturbing images of the mutilation and decay of the body there was another thread in those writings that, I think, suggests a close relationship between the body and trauma.

    One of the recurring themes was how this inexpressible experience is being inscribed in the body through unconscious reflexes, symptoms of the radiation sickness, etc., that make it hard for the victims to function in post-war reality. I think it was briliantly portrayed in Imamura’s ‘Kuroi ame’, for example, by the character who always falls flat on the ground when he hears the sound of the bus and tries to blow it up. It’s like two life-worlds collide in his body.

    Your essay made me thinking about that relation. Especially the way Kore-eda uses the body to express the inexpressible. In many cultures the body signifies the social order and the care for one’s body can be considered as reproduction of this order. So maybe the lack of thereof can be interpreted as a sign that something is wrong? The leftovers of nail-polish, the dirty hand, the messy and slightly too long hair may point our attention to the dissolution of a family and the break down of the life-world of the children.

    I don’t know how about trauma, because psychology is not my strong point, so it’s just some loose ideas that I thought I’d share. Besides all else, it made me want to watch the movie again.
    Best regards,

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