Not many people will ever understand the enormous burdens of being a single mother. The often overwhelming task of seeing to virtually all of your children’s needs with little to no help from outside sources can be quite daunting. Often, single mothers, especially those who aren’t widowed, or who have children from multiple fathers, bear not just the brunt of the responsibility of parenting those children, but also the social stigma of not being “respectable”, and therefore a woman who most deem unworthy of consideration. Being poor on top of everything else only heightens the disrespect, dehumanization, and despair that single mothers, and their children, often endure. But Nobody Knows isn’t the story of the trials of a single mother. It’s a film about how radically different the lives of four children become when their mother does what all of their fathers did: abandons them.
Based on a true story, Nobody Knows revolves around the lives of the four Fukushima children: Akira (Yuya Yagira), the resourceful 12-year-old eldest son, Kyoko (Ayu Kitataura), the responsible 11-year-old eldest daughter, Shigero (Hiei Kimura) the loud and rambunctious youngest son, and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), the quiet, beloved little sister. All of the children have different fathers, but their mother, Keiko (You/Ehara Yukiko), manages the best she can with odd jobs, and an unfair responsibility that she places on Akira and Kyoko’s shoulders to look out for their younger siblings, which keeps the children incredibly close.
The family is unconventional in more ways than one, however. Since their mother cannot afford an apartment to house five people, her new landlord and his wife only know of Akira, who moves in with her, while Kyoko takes the train and is snuck in, and Shigero and Yuki are smuggled into the home via suitcases. What can be brushed aside as a single mother making do as best as she could is quickly revealed to be one of the first in a series of circumstances where Keiko places her convenience ahead of the welfare of her children when the audience learns that Akira is the only child enrolled in school, begrudgingly teaching Kyoko what he has learned when he comes home. Keiko displays the ultimate in negligence, however, when she leaves Akira with a bit of money and abandons her children for months.
Though Akira and Kyoko have always had to be more responsible and more reserved than other children their age, watching them evolve from lonely but sheltered children into frightened surrogate parents is downright traumatizing. The audience breathes a sigh of relief when Keiko comes home briefly, armed with gifts for her neglected children, but after announcing that she has a new boyfriend and will return for them before Christmas, she promptly leaves them again, and the finality of this departure is felt by both the children and audience alike.
Faced with paying the rent, electric, gas, water, phone, and food bills alone, the siblings, despite Akira and Kyoko’s best efforts, quickly fall into disarray, visibly malnourished from instant noodles bought at the local convenience store. Their apartment becomes filthy, as do they, when the water, along with the other utilities, is shut off. Though Akira initially uses their mother’s absence to experience having friends for the first time, he and his siblings learn a valuable lesson about how lowly the visibly poor, even children, are so often seen by others, and the importance of putting their family first. As the children struggle daily to stay fed, stay alive, and stay together, the audience goes through an onslaught of heartbreaks that are never quite mended.
What’s interesting about my (and most people’s) reaction to Nobody Knows is how (rightfully) enraged I was over Keiko’s abandonment of her four children. While what she did had various irreversible consequences, I know that many people’s main source of shock and anger came from the fact that it was a mother behaving this way for a change, and not a father. Often, our societies doesn’t just accept but passively encourage men in abdicating their responsibilities to their children, while admonishing and actively vilifying women who do the same. Any way you slice it, this is internalized misogyny. Child rearing is not just mother’s work, and before being abandoned by their mother, the Fukushima children were each abandoned by their fathers. Their mother simply carried on the tradition of giving them no one to depend on. Nobody Knows is not heartwarming, joyful, uplifting, or sweet. It’s a traumatic reminder than giving children life is not enough. No one ever asked to be born, so doing the best you can to provide for your children, sticking around through the good times and the bad, is the least that any parent can do for them. Yes, parents owe their children, not the other way around, and all of the parents involved with these children have a debt that can never be repaid.
I give this one 4.75 stars.