Art house film is a really shitty cultural milieu. Back in the 1960s, when European directors began to chafe against the studio system and competition from an ever-expanding Hollywood machine, they looked to the East for legitimacy and proof that cinema didn’t need to be about three act structures and infantilising melodrama. The history of European film may be dominated by European names but those early Japanese victories in Berlin served to remind the world that Hollywood is not the default option when it comes to film. Half a century later and Japanese film is treated in the same cavalier fashion as every other piece of non-English language cinema: Invisible until someone has a breakthrough at which point the floodgates open until everyone gets bored and moves on to the next big thing. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a Spanish horror film or French thriller at your local cinema? Was it after one Spanish horror film or French thriller had a breakthrough success? I thought so.
It is now a long time since a Japanese film was embraced by European audiences and so the lines of communication with the Japanese cinema scene are growing increasingly faint. Fancy watching a cartoon series about World War II battleships that are anthropomorphised as sexualised pre-pubescent girls? No problem! There’s a massive website that will sub-title that shit and stream it so that you can see it at the same time as Japanese people! Fancy watching a Japanese live-action film that peels back the surface of Japanese social problems and exposes the embattled spirit that all humans share regardless of their race, gender or sexuality? Yeah… that might appear on DVD eventually but only if it does well at Cannes. Clearly, Japanese directors are missing a trick by not having their intricately-drawn characters be semen-drinking demons that look like 10 year-old girls.
Hirokazu Koreeda is one of only a handful of Japanese directors who retain some visibility in the West. Over the past twenty years, his films have charted the emotional landscape of contemporary Japan with a degree of humanity that nearly justifies Koreeda’s reputation as heir to the cinematic tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Released in 2004 and winner of the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Nobody Knows finds Koreeda using one of his favoured narrative techniques: Taking inspiration from a contemporary news story and producing a film that unpacks the emotions underpinning not only the story but its relationship to Japanese society.