In the devastating new film Nobody Knows, threeJapanese children are smuggled into a new apartment by their mother, a young woman so arbitrary and impulsive that for a while you might mistake her for their older sister, or a flighty baby-sitter. Other than the fact that the youngest, a girl, arrives in a suitcase and a fourth and eldest sibling, a boy, is introduced to the landlord as an only child, at first their domestic life seems banal enough, if a touch unsteady. The mother, who's played by a Japanese television personality named You, for whom the part seems not much of a stretch, does the girls' hair and nails and helps the kids with their lessons. Pretty soon, though, we learn the children are not in school, they all have different fathers, and their primary parent, who chillingly refers to herself in the third person as "your mother," is frequently away at "work," which translates as shacking up with her latest boyfriend. One day she takes off altogether, leaving some money and a terse note forbidding the younger kids to go out, and promising to return by Christmas. The children barely react—they seem used to her abrupt departures and arrivals—but we register their subliminal anxiety through fragmentary close-ups of a tacked-up drawing of Mommy or a wistful caress of manicured nails.
Nobody Knows, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (known in this country for his hauntingly original 1999 movie After Life, about a group of people who are allowed to carry one memory with them when they die), is based on a real-life case of child desertion that caused a public scandal in Japan in 1988. Abandoned children are an acknowledged fact of American life both on and off the screen, but to western eyes at least there is something shocking about seeing the problem addressed with such terrifying calm in a society known for its pride in the stability of both family and state. The movie took a year to make and spans a year in the children's benighted struggle to stay afloat. At 141 minutes there's a quasi-documentary feel to its intricate immersion in the daily lives of these children as, headed by the solemn-faced eldest boy, Akira (Yagira Yuya), they go about the grinding daily business of survival. But Nobody Knows is not a film "about" abandonment so much as a poetic, intensely subjective and empathic portrait of what it feels like to be in this predicament. As the seasons wash over the mundane landscape of an indifferent city, Kore-eda takes the measure of the children's moods in fleeting shots of a toy piano, a squeaky sandal, the gradual decay of the cramped and increasingly dirty apartment. The score is frugal, a few bars here and there from a guitar or a ukulele. Akira comes and goes, foraging for food, trying in vain to hit up his own feckless father and those of the other children for money, accepting secret handouts from a kindly convenience-store clerk. There are brief moments of escape—a basketball game, a trip to the video arcade, a quick outing in the park—when the kids act like kids, living only for the moment.
Nobody Knows unfolds with such leisurely, terrible beauty, it takes a while to realize that what we are witnessing is the children's long slide into beggary, exacerbated by the slow torture of faint hope. When someone asks when their mother is coming home, Akira says emphatically, "Never," then tremulously, "Probably." Kore-eda works magic with kids—he has managed to coax four lively amateur child actors into registering the dull eyes and flat affect of adult depression. Their quiet decline into a lethargic stupor, born as much of hopelessness as of hunger and thirst, conversely produces in the viewer a mounting, almost unbearable anxiety. When the landlord's wife comes to collect the rent, cradling a small dog in her arms—a dig, no doubt, at the prioritizing of pets over children in an increasingly childless society—I wanted to shout, "Call the police! Call someone!"
The kids know better; they'll do anything not to be split up. And so, nobody knows, or cares. Kore-eda is no Ken Loach—he files no briefs. But there's no mistaking his glancing allusions to the poisonous nexus of pressure (local kids with nominally more orderly lives rush off to "cram school") and neglect that is the lot of so many children in urban societies. Besides, there is indictment enough in the children's glazed eyes, and in the tragedy that, echoing real-life events, inexorably arrives. This is not the end of the movie, for Kore-eda clearly recognizes that a climax would be a betrayal, when the troubles of Akira and his siblings, and millions of other kids like them, will go on and on until someone takes responsibility for their plight.
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NOBODY KNOWS was written, directed and produced by HIROKAZU KORE-EDA; and stars Yagira Yuya, Kitaura Ayu amd you. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.