Title: Nobody Knows
Author: Shelley Tanaka
Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 143 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction
Started: October 5, 2012
Finished: October 5, 2012
It’s autumn in Tokyo, and twelve-year-old Akira and his younger siblings, Kyoko, Shige and little Yuki, have just moved into a new apartment with their mother. Akira hopes it’s a new start for all of them, even though the little ones are not allowed to leave the apartment or make any noise, since the landlord doesn’t permit young children in the building. But their mother soon begins to spend more and more time away from the apartment, and then one morning Akira finds an envelope of money and a note. She has gone away with her new boyfriend for a while.
Akira bravely shoulders the responsibility for the family. He shops and cooks and pays the bills, while Kyoko does the laundry. The children spend their time watching TV, drawing and playing games, wishing they could go to school and have friends like everyone else. Then one morning their mother breezes in with gifts for everyone, but she is soon gone again.
Months pass, until one spring day Akira decides they have been prisoners in the apartment long enough. For a brief time the children bask in their freedom. They shop, explore, plant a little balcony garden, have the playground to themselves. Even when the bank account is empty and the utilities are turned off and the children become increasingly ill-kempt, it seems that they have been hiding for nothing. In the bustling big city, nobody notices them. It’s as if nobody knows.
But by August the city is sweltering, and the children are too malnourished and exhausted even to go out. Akira is afraid to contact child welfare, remembering the last time the authorities intervened, and the family was split up. Eventually even he can’t hold it together any more, and then one day tragedy strikes…
Based on the award-winning film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a powerfully moving novel about four children who become invisible to almost everyone in their community and manage — for a time — to survive on their own.
When I was a Japanese major in university, one of the courses we could take was a Japanese film class. One of my favourite movies from that class was the one that this book is adapted from: Nobody Knows. Like many Japanese films, it's very sad and heartfelt, and the book of course captures the spirit of the film perfectly.
The book reads as almost a script of the movie. Akira and his mother move into a new apartment and smuggle in his three younger siblings. Their mother doesn't allow the children to go to school (due to fear of Japanese cultural taboos about children born out of wedlock and/or without a traditional family structure), so the kids spend their days doing chores and generally lounging about. When their mother finds a new boyfriend, she takes off for longer periods of time before she leaves altogether, leaving money for Akira to take care of things while she's gone. Expecting his mother to return, Akira is amazingly responsible and, together with younger sister Kyoko, actually manage the household on their own. When the money runs out and the utilities are shut off, Akira and the others come to the slow realization that their mother isn't coming home.
I'll warn you right off that this plot is immensely sad, especially regarding events towards the end of the book (it involves a death). What makes the film particularly poignant is when you apply an understanding of Japanese culture to the scenes. It helps readers understand why the children don't attend school, why the mother chooses to abandon her children rather than simply make it clear to the boyfriend that her and her kids are a package deal, why the multitude of characters (both children and adults) don't take any steps on the children's behalf to rescue them from neglect, and why Akira is so adamant that he and his siblings not be split up (and why there wouldn't be a place where all 4 siblings could stay together). It would make for a wonderful discussion in a social studies class, especially if the relevant cultural notes are made.
The book version captures the spirit of the film nicely, so both formats could be used simultaneously if desired. The content is extremely sad (I cannot stress this enough), so probably not the best choice for sensitive readers.
Thoughts on the cover:
The cover uses a still shot of Akira from the film. It's kind of a 'meh' cover since there's not much else that would realistically be used.