In a small Tokyo apartment, twelve-year-old Akira must care for his younger siblings after their mother leaves them and shows no sign of returning.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," a harrowing, tender film, was inspired by a real event known in Japan as "the affair of the four abandoned children of Nishi-Sugamo." The facts of the case, which achieved some notoriety in 1988, suggest the kind of story you might follow, with a mixture of prurience, revulsion and moralism, on Court TV or in a tabloid newspaper. Four children -- three of them without birth records, all of them the offspring of different fathers -- were left alone by their mother in a small Tokyo apartment, where they lived for six months without attracting any notice or intervention.
Their tale is a rich, awful congeries of primal and distinctly modern fears, from the universal childhood fantasy of parental abandonment to the more grown-up suspicion that big cities are places of cruel isolation and indifference. Mr. Kore-eda explores nearly every emotional nuance and implication of the story, without for an instant succumbing to sensationalism or melodrama. The content of "Nobody Knows," which should consolidate his reputation as one of Japan's most interesting and original filmmakers, is inherently upsetting, and watching the film is, to some extent, a punishing immersion in impotent dread.
In observing the helplessness of the four children, you become acutely aware of your own inability to do anything for them. Mr. Kore-eda's camera is so close to them -- navigating the narrow, cramped spaces of their home, zooming in on their faces, hands and feet -- that the sense of their aloneness becomes overwhelming. You are in on the secret of their existence and prevented from communicating it.
But because the movie also sticks closely to the children's point of view -- and in particular to the experience of Akira (Yuya Yagira), the oldest of the four and the one left in charge by his mother (You) -- it also offers a measure of relief. Akira, his two sisters, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), and their irrepressible (and perhaps mildly retarded) younger brother, Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), are not quite aware of the horrific implications of their plight. They are, after all, accustomed to living with a childlike, erratic parent, who is capable of being funny and generous as well as neglectful. In the early scenes, their life with her has an adventurous, mischievous quality; the two smaller children are smuggled into the new apartment in suitcases, so their existence can be kept secret from the landlord.
And some of the spirit of fairy-tale adventure remains even after the mother has vanished, the money she left behind has dwindled and Akira's steadfastness has begun to fray into desperation. In reality, the idea of children fending for themselves is terrifying, but that terror is also what gives so many bedtime stories and young-adult novels their thrill. Children's literature, from the Brothers Grimm to "The Secret Garden" to Lemony Snicket, is heavily populated by foundlings, orphans and cast-off children whose pluck and resourcefulness feed fantasies of heroic self-sufficiency.
"Nobody Knows" is of course too naturalistic, and too disturbing, to be a movie for children, but it nonetheless engages the audience's wondering, childlike imagination as well as its worrying adult conscience. Though the responsibility of caring for his siblings weighs heavily on Akira, he does not entirely lose his capacity for fun and spontaneity. He also takes it upon himself to protect the younger ones, giving them gifts and holiday presents that he pretends are from their mother and keeping them supplied with playthings and treats when his meager budget allows.
Mr. Yagira was 12 when he began work on the film and 14 when he won the top acting prize in Cannes last year, beating out Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush and Gael García Bernal, among others. His performance is the key to the film's uncanny ability to capture the world of childhood from both inside and out; Akira is, of necessity, mature beyond his years, but also frighteningly unworldly, and Mr. Yagira, without the self-consciousness that young actors so often lean on, allows glimpses of the boy's complicated inner life to come through in small gestures and fleeting expressions.
"Nobody Knows" is not for the faint of heart, though it has no scenes of overt violence, and barely a tear is shed. It is also strangely thrilling, not only because of the quiet assurance of Mr. Kore-eda's direction, but also because of his alert, humane sense of sympathy. He is neither an optimist nor a sentimentalist -- like his previous films, "Maborosi," "After Life" and "Distance," this one presents a fairly bleak view of the modern world -- but he does keep an eye out for manifestations of decency, bravery and solidarity. These tend to be small and fleeting, and therefore all the more valuable and worth clinging to when his patient, meticulous eye uncovers them.
"Nobody Knows" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some upsetting scenes.
A. O. Scott, New York Times. 4th Feb 2005.
Hirokazu Kore-eda is the Japanese director whose breakthrough movie, After-Life, is gradually assuming cult status. It is a fantasy based on the idea that, after your death, you are asked to recall the most purely happy moment in your life so that it can be eternally re-created for your enjoyment. His follow-up, Distance - at Cannes in 2001 - was widely considered disappointing. However, his latest film, Nobody Knows (in Japanese, Daremo Shirinai) is a satisfying reminder of this director's talent for extending a single moment with superbly poised artistry.
Keiko is a single mum with four kids by different fathers, played here by the Japanese columnist and TV personality known simply as You. Flaky and irresponsible, she effectively sub-contracts parental duties to her eldest boy, 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) while she takes off with various boyfriends for days at a time. And then one day she simply never comes back, leaving Akira quite alone with his little sisters Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) and brother Shigeru (Hiei Kimura)
Kore-eda patiently tracks the children's secret existence as un-adult adults, minute by minute, with gentleness and acute observation. They do not become feral, but maintain, with a weird and moving dignity, the best semblance of family life possible as their flat becomes more and more run down. They are four souls alone in their own universe, abandoned and unloved like believers whose Creator has turned his back on them. Kore-eda gets miraculously fresh performances from the children and the film is absorbing, humane and deeply moving.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, Cannes 14th May 2004.