My exploration of the work of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda continued last week with a viewing of his 2004 feature film Nobody Knows. The film is based on a real case from 1988 of a family of four children abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves over a period of about nine months, in a small apartment in Tokyo. Koreeda’s version is restrained, leaving out the more shocking details of the true story. As one reviewer puts it:
Koreeda possesses a superior talent for pulling on the heartstrings without ever forcing overt ‘sadness’. Nobody Knows is a story told through close-ups with no tears shed and no dramatic outbursts. Because who needs drama when you can linger for a second too long on those tiny shoes and shatter your audience into a million tiny pieces? (Amy Bowker)
|Yûya Yagira as Akira in Nobody Knows|
All the children in the film are engaging, but the film encourages us to identify and suffer most acutely with the eldest, Akira, a 12-year-old boy who is given the responsibility of caring for his three younger half-siblings (each child has a different, indifferent father). He valiantly struggles to fill the parental role his mother and her lovers have abandoned, although in some ways, his precocious maturity shows most poignantly when he attempts to remain a child in spite of the burdens placed upon him. Successes in joining in the conventional activities of other boys of his age are brief, however, and each episode of early adolescent exploration or pleasure is rapidly followed by further disintegration of the fragile order at home.
Having come across the psychological term “parentified child,” I initially assumed that this boy, Akira, was a classic, albeit extreme example of this type – a child forced to take on the role of parent, quite literally, due to the failure or inability of their parents to do so. However, as I subsequently discovered, in the literature on family systems, parentification is specifically defined in terms of an emotional role reversal, in which a parent looks to a child to meet their emotional needs, e.g. for affection and intimacy, approval and reassurance, stability and control, because they are not being met by a partner or by other peers. The child may enjoy playing this special role in a parent’s life, but it predicts relationship difficulties the child’s own later life, such as lack of trust that others will be there for them in times of distress, and fear of losing relationships because they cannot meet the other’s needs.
This can be distinguished from the situation when, often for economic reasons, a child is asked to assume a parental role with younger siblings while the parents are absent or otherwise occupied. In this case, the “helpful child” takes on the responsibility of caring for younger children, rather than that of meeting a parent’s emotional needs, and this responsibility has limits, so long as the parent remains clearly in the role of parent when they are present. In contrast to parentification, this experience is usually positive for a child’s development, predicting resilience, capability and personality strengths in later life (Teyber, 2006: 209-211).
In Nobody Knows, the character of Akira shows traits of both the parentified and the helpful child, making it hard to categorise him neatly in terms of this distinction. Early on we witness him attempting both to support and discipline his charmingly playful, but unhappy and impulsive mother. However, we are also made aware of the societal pressures that lead this single mother to hide the existence of her younger children when the family moves to a new apartment, and the difficulties that force her to rely on the older children to help her care for the younger ones. In this role, Akira shows himself to be remarkably capable and resourceful.
As filmmaker Kenta McGrath observes, Koreeda displays great visual eloquence in evoking both resilience and loss:
As the film progresses, many of the filmed objects are recycled – symbolically by Koreeda, literally by the children – and assume new functions once their initial ones are fulfilled. Empty bowls of Cup Noodles house plants, unpaid bills turn into sketch pads, a suitcase becomes a coffin. Objects and gestures are what linger long after the film ends, reverberating as symbols of resilience, resourcefulness, misfortune, dreams put on hold. (Kenta McGrath)
The children’s creative improvisation, however heartening, is not sufficient to overcome the adversity they face. As it becomes evident that their mother will not return, Akira is left without any reliable adult to turn to when he is unable to meet the needs of the family alone. Not simply parentification in relation to his mother, but distressing prior encounters with the welfare system have engendered a deep lack of trust that others will be there for him or his siblings in times of need. And this lack of trust appears well-founded: although it is obvious that many adults become aware of the children’s plight, nobody chooses to “know” or to become more than superficially involved. This benign neglect leaves the children isolated amid prosperity, abandoned not only by their parents, but by a whole atomised society.
For me, Koreeda's the film elicited a painful moment of recognition: I realised I have witnessed this phenomenon here in Melbourne, many times over. Recently, I have been conducting interviews with people who are or have been homeless, asking them about their own resilience. They have recounted sometimes astonishing examples of the ability to keep going and adapt under conditions of extreme difficulty. Their stories, like that of Koreeda’s film, have also shown me that unsupported, individual resilience is not enough to protect people from intense suffering. The capacity to connect and be seen as part of the wider community in times of need is vital to survival, and this capacity crucially depends on the willingness of others – others in proximity, but also others in positions of power and influence – to pay attention, to “know” what is happening and to respond in a humane, flexible, responsible way. Too often, in these neoliberal capitalist times, such willingness seems to be in distressingly short supply.
It strikes me that the problem highlighted by Koreeda’s film, and by increasing rates of homelessness in a wealthy city like Melbourne, should not be seen as a failure of empathy or compassion. These virtues are attractive but cannot be compelled, and in any case, they are entirely absent neither in the film, nor in the experiences of my interviewees. Rather, when disaster strikes the vulnerable and their suffering is not mitigated by social supports, this is a failure of social responsibility.