It's the kind of human-interest story a tabloid newspaper sticks its ace sob sister on. An unmarried mother brings four children into a small Tokyo apartment, smuggling three inside her luggage. Except for the eldest, the children are told to never leave the apartment. Even the tiny balcony is forbidden.
The mother leaves every morning for work. One day she doesn't return. Instead cheques arrive in the mail -- always late. Eventually the children are left to their own devices, with household utilities blinking off left and right.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows is inspired by an infamous true-life incident known in Japan as "the affair of the four abandoned children of Nishi-Sugamo." Kore-eda's film, however, is blessedly free of the morbid sentimentality that mars so many slippery-with-tears, newspaper human-interest stories.
The two youngest children, four- and seven-year-old Shigeru and Yuki, seem blissfully happy. Older sister Kyoko is at first okay with the arrangement. Only Akira, the 12-year-old who scrounges for food and resolves all family disputes with disinterested calm, has a vague understanding of their peril. But even he is sidetracked by video games and friends who pop by to enjoy open stretches of unsupervised freedom.
Director Kore-eda (Maborosi, After Life) continually resists turning the children's predicament into some kind of Grimm fairy tale. On the contrary, the filmmaker delights in his young players, taking time to notice how their legs work like extension ladders, stretching at both the heel and toes in allowing them to peer out windows. For Yuki's birthday, Akira takes the youngster outside at last to feel the wind against her skin. To celebrate her freedom, Yuki insists on wearing her favourite ducky slippers. The two children stroll down a busy city sidewalk, their eyes wide with excitement. And with every step Yuki's slippers offer a sharp report: "Quack! quack! quack!"
That Kore-eda allows the children to experience innocent freedom makes his film enjoyable. But his audience's pleasure is complicated by a creeping dread. Only we understand how dire the children's situation really is.
Nobody Knows is particularly artful at revealing how the children express resentment toward their mother (Japanese TV personality You). Arriving home late from a bar one night, mom decides to treat 10-year-old Kyoko to a sloppy manicure, painting her fingernails traffic-light red. The child says nothing, her face expressionless. But the next day we see that she has scrubbed most of the unwanted paint off her fingers.
The film is a half-hour overlong at 140 minutes. Kore-eda is one of those deeply absorbed art filmmakers who, when he has a character walk a 20-step staircase, will walk with you up every single stair. But his unhurried style and offhand dialogue gives the film a disarmingly natural feel. And his players -- non-professionals except for You -- are extraordinarily graceful. They don't seem to be acting at all. They just are.
The film's anchor is Yuya Yagira, winner of the best-actor prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The film is told from his character Akira's point of view. The performance would seem a miracle -- a complete neophyte triumphing in a full-sized screen role. Surely though, half the credit again belongs to screenwriter-director Kore-eda. For the character of Akira -- mostly hidden, at times nakedly hopeful, and prone always to numbed embarrassment -- has been tailored to allow for an expressive amateur's fitful playing.
There is no trick to Kore-eda's accomplishment here. In lesser hands, "the affair of four abandoned children" might have been a wearying melodrama filled with shrieking kids and unspeakable villains. Nobody Knows is much more than that. Uncommonly tender and well observed, continuously surprising, and unmistakably heartfelt, it is the rare film about childhood that never cheats its subject or audience. Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest work is nothing short of mesmerizing.