Nobody Knows, the story of four children abandoned in a Tokyo apartment, is the fourth film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, the 42-year-old director who is regarded as one of the best of his generation in Japan.
His films, which focus on loss, take place in the area, he says, where "cinema meets real life." His background is in television and documentary, but he began to feel that documentary subjects were always aware of the camera's presence and he wondered if he couldn't get a more honest picture of human behaviour through fiction.
His poetic first feature was the festival hit Maborosi (1995) about a young widow who goes to a remote coastal village to grieve after her husband 's suicide. After Life (1999) was about people waiting in a holding house before moving on to their life after death, which was followed by the suicide-cult drama Distance (2001).
Last year, Kore-eda came to Cannes with Nobody Knows, which won a best-actor award for one of its young stars, 14-year-old Yuya Yagira. The film conveys the sense of childhood consciousness so persuasively it feels almost like a documentary.
The director -- who is quiet and watchful in person, as you would expect from seeing his films -- politely disagrees. Speaking through an interpreter at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, he pointed out that Nobody Knows often used a fixed camera and a lot of editing within scenes, neither of which is typical of a documentary.
"Though it's based on a real story, almost every detail has been changed including the sex and ages of the children," he said. "There were no rehearsals but we spent a lot of time shooting the children on video until they got used to the camera and we got to know their behaviour. I then devised situations that were true to their personalities."
The film took a year to make in total, broken up into four seasons. For each section, Kore-eda would finish his shooting and then edit the results before making changes to the next script.
During intervals in the shooting of Nobody Knows, Kore-eda produced the directorial debuts Kakuto by 27-year-old Yusuke Iseya and Wild Berries by 29-year-old Miwa Nishikawa. Time Asia declared that his decision to produce turned "a mere talented artist into something of an industry visionary."
"It was not a big deal," he said. "I recognize that it's incredibly hard right now for young directors in Japan. I just wanted to offer any help I could."
Kore-eda doesn't see himself as a standard bearer for a humanist tradition in Japanese cinema: "The films I've made have been the films that were possible to make with the resources I had. I'd like to make many different kinds of films. I'd be happy to make genre films -- a big science-fiction movie, for example -- but I haven't had that opportunity."
To emphasize the point, he mentioned that his next film will be a studio-produced costume epic involving a man attempting to avenge the death of his father.
"And I promise you, it's pure fiction. No one will mistake it for a documentary."