CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 3 . . . . September 21, 2012
In the process of growing up, children deal with various personal issues in their daily lives, with some issues arising unexpectedly and being beyond their control. In children's and young adult novels, a topic that has been portrayed frequently is that of young people who live in dysfunctional or broken familial circumstances, such as those who have been abandoned by their parents. In these types of stories, the narrative arc has often developed in a couple of possible ways. The story could progress towards a positive or at least a hopeful resolution whereby the characters are lifted out of their circumstance; alternatively, the story could conclude on a more somber note in which the characters' circumstances are perpetuated or minimally improved. Based on Horokazu Kore-Eda's award-winning film, Shelley Tanaka's Nobody Knows reflects the latter type of narrative trajectory through its portrayal of children who have been abandoned by their mother. This type of narrative is not unique as several stories have dealt with this topic, but Tanaka's novel deals with the topic well by making it accessible to younger readers. At the same time, the novel avoids simplifying the characters' circumstances that it portrays.
Nobody Knows focuses on the lives of 12-year-old Akira and his younger siblings whom Akira must care for after their mother abandons them in a Tokyo apartment. Initially, Akira and his siblings, Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki, are happy because of their move to a new place in which Akira feels optimistic about the future. However, these initial feelings disappear as the children's mother spends an increasing amount of time away from home and, eventually, she leaves with her boyfriend for a long period of time. When Akira wakes up one morning, their mother has left home, leaving behind a cryptic note and some money. Her note only says that she is going away for a while but does not provide any time frame as to when she would return. As a result, Akira and his siblings are left to fend for themselves.
A particular strength of Nobody Knows is its characterization. Although Akira is the focus of the novel, Tanaka depicts each of the children as distinct individuals rather than as part of a homogenous group. In doing so, Tanaka effectively conveys the characters' psychological states and the different ways in which they respond to their trying circumstances. Although the children's mother returns home in November with numerous gifts for them, she leaves again shortly after, seemingly for good. The rest of the novel focuses on Akira's and his siblings' lives as they attempt to survive on their own. Even though Akira feels an obligation to look after his siblings, he grows resentful that their mother has left them to fend for themselves and with only a limited amount of money. To avoid disappointing his siblings, Akira, with the assistance of a friendly clerk from the convenience store, pretends that their mother has sent them New Year's presents. As for Akira's siblings, they react differently to their circumstances. For example, Kyoko seems to resign herself to their situation and attempts to make the best of it, whereas Shige feels trapped in their apartment and needs to escape outdoors, at least temporarily.
Taking place over a year, this story's passage of time is conveyed by not only its focus on key moments in the children's lives during this time period but also by the book's division into four sections. Based on the four seasons, the first section of the book is "Autumn," followed by "Winter," "Spring," and "Summer." Yet, for the siblings, time becomes meaningless as the days pass. With their hopes for the future disintegrated, they start looking forward to simply surviving from one day to the next. The spring and summer give them temporary respite as they can enjoy their days outside and forget temporarily about their situation, but they must still deal with their continual lack of food and other means for survival.
Indeed, the book's title, Nobody Knows, which is taken from the film, refers to their circumstances and the way in which Akira and his siblings are virtually invisible within their community. Even when their apartment's landlord becomes suspicious about their situation, it appears that she is afraid to discover the truth. As for Akira's peers, they simply avoid and make fun of them, with the exception of Saki, a girl they befriend, who is also dealing with personal problems of her own.
Certain events in the book may not be understood very well by younger readers, due to their lack of knowledge about the context. For example, Saki decides to help Akira and his siblings when she finds out that he is running short of money. The book does not state explicitly how Saki gets so much money, but it suggests implicitly that she has offered her services to older men. Whether this is sexual in nature is left unclear, but, at the least, she appears to have served as an escort. Similarly, it is not clear what Akira's mother is doing with the other man whom she supposedly falls in love with or why she has left home for such long periods of time. Readers are left to speculate about these circumstances, but even younger readers will still be able to sympathize with Akira's and his sibling's lonely and impoverished circumstances.
Similarly, knowledge about Japanese culture and history is not essential to understanding the story because the children's plight can be understood outside of this context. Regardless of the societal context, the state of being impoverished is something that readers can comprehend and with which they can sympathize. Based on the novel's effective portrayal of characters' psychological states, readers can imagine themselves in the characters' situation.
Nobody Knows avoids ending neatly and simplistically, opting instead for a more uncertain and tenuous conclusion. The lack of an optimistic or hopeful conclusion may not appeal to some readers, but this is ultimately a more realistic portrayal of the children. As a whole, the story emphasizes the challenges of living in impoverished circumstances and the immense difficulty in escaping from them, due both to the individuals' personal plight and the lack of societal support or willingness to assist those in need. Readers will be left wondering about the future of Akira and his siblings. Despite this uncertainty, the resilience of Akira and his siblings is conveyed throughout, even when they must deal with a tragedy that will affect their situation irreversibly.
Besides of its focus on characterization, Nobody Knows appears to give a subtle critique of traditional gender roles and the ways in which they get perpetuated from one generation to the next. Akira's mother holds rather rigid views about what boys and girls can do, views which are manifest through Kyoko's role in their home. Despite Kyoko's aspirations to learn and her desires for companionship, her mother discourages her and says that she does not need to go to school. Yet, she does not say the same thing about Akira who does attend school. In addition, Kyoko is expected to take care of the domestic sphere, such as by cooking the meals.
The story itself is fairly straightforward and can be understood by the book's target readers of ages 10 and up. Written at an appropriate age level, the book is organized into easy-to-read and manageable chapters, a style which is particularly important for younger readers or readers with shorter attention spans. In addition, the book is supplemented by photos from the film. Providing visual cues, these photos break up the text and also help to highlight important narrative or emotional moments, thereby enhancing the story's realism and immediacy for readers. As a result, readers will further sympathize with the people depicted in those photos which further convey their emotional and psychological states. For example, Akiri, when he first meets Saki, describes her as having "the saddest face he had ever seen". This comment is supplemented on the facing page by a photo of Saki in which she gazes downward sadly.
Given its audience and topical focus, Nobody Knows would be particularly appropriate for school and public libraries. The book would also be suited to an academic library's collection of children's and young adult literature or collection of ethnic minority literature. For more information on Shelley Tanaka and her work, readers can visit her page at the Vermont College of Fine Arts where she teaches (http://www.vcfa.edu/node/204), or her publisher's website (http://www.houseofanansi.com/).
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies and currently works as a research specialist in Edmonton, AB. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children's literature in his spare time.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.