Director Hirokazu Kore-eda's watchful, heartbreaking film Nobody Knows presents the plight of four children living unnoticed in one of the world's most populous cities. The kids eke out an existence like something out of The Diary of Anne Frank, and their conditions worsen when Keiko abandons them outright.
It's not clear at first whether the secrecy of the three children stems from financial necessity or some cultural restriction unique to Japan. But Keiko lists "rules" for the household that suggest the family has lived this way before. Only 12-year-old Akira (Yuya Yagira) can leave, since somebody has to buy food and run errands. The others cannot even go out on the apartment's tabletop-sized veranda or make loud noise of any kind. None have the same father, nor do they attend school, although they study workbooks on their own.
When Nobody Knows' closing credits identify the mother as "You," it seems like a surprisingly bald indictment of the film's audience, until you learn that You is the actual name of a bubbly Japanese television personality. With no sense of discipline or responsibility, Keiko proves to be the most childish personality in the film. When she rolls in late smelling of alcohol, she wakes up the children so they can pal around with her. When Akira confronts her selfishness, she calls him "a drag" and asks, "I'm not allowed to be happy?"
The only thing worse than Keiko's presence is her absence, and she's prone to leave for weeks, then indefinitely. Akira accepts a grown-up's duties, paying the bills, transferring money at the ATM, and even forging New Year's gifts from his mother so his siblings won't feel neglected. Younger son Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and 5-year-old daughter Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) show the remarkable adaptability of childhood. Too young to know what they deserve, they prove reasonably happy and think it's normal to color all day in the same three small rooms.
But daughter Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), who's nearly as old as Akira, resents being denied school and piano lessons. Still, she has a child's instinct to blame herself for their plight: When Keiko's absence drags on, Kyoko wonders if it's her fault. All four young actors give impressively quiet, natural performances. At one point, Yuki asserts that Keiko will return on her birthday, so Akira walks her to the train station to meet her, then brings Yuki back alone that night. Kore-eda doesn't show the little girl in tears or asking unanswerable questions, because the scene packs all the punch it needs without them.
Kore-eda shot Nobody Knows over a year, in sequence, so we see the seasons change, the veranda become a makeshift garden, and the kids' hair grow increasingly long and tangled. Mother's ex-boyfriends provide little help, lacking both cash and sympathy. When the electricity, water and other utilities are shut off, the kids bend mother's rules to wash their clothes and brush their teeth at a public water fountain, like an urban Swiss Family Robinson.
Nobody Knows' most heartbreaking scenes don't involve hurt feelings or overt cruelties, but occur instead during the children's rare happy moments when they get to be actual kids. Akira finds respite from his pressures by playing with a red ball he finds on the ground, and all four siblings take a springtime holiday in the park, exulting in their freedom and togetherness. Such superficially carefree scenes underscore the extent to which they've been cheated of normal childhoods. And we forgive Akira, who craves companionship, for hanging out with schoolboys who take advantage of him.
Clearly Nobody Knows never presents a sugarcoated view of youth, but nor does it solely emphasize the pain of children's plight (based on a real case in Tokyo in 1988). Kore-eda vividly evokes the downtime of childhood, the easily forgotten moments without highs or lows. He conveys how, to children, the rooms in their home are like worlds unto themselves. The film appreciates the paradox that sometimes for kids, minutes drag endlessly, while other times they can find hours of fascination in tiny, trivial matters, like nail polish stains on the floor or the unchanging view out the window.
Nobody Knows ends far from happily or neatly, and even when moments at the conclusion brush with sentiment, the film never strays from the emotional truth of its story. It's impossible to watch Nobody Knows without empathizing with the plight of homeless children everywhere. The negligent mother might be You, but the culpability belongs to all of us.