"Nobody Knows" is one of those films that I had been meaning to watch for ages, but I was hesitant about the premise. A young mother named Keiko (TV personality, Yo) and her son Akira (Yuya Yagira) move into a new apartment building, secretly smuggling in Akira's three siblings Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu), two of them hidden in suitcases. The younger children are not allowed outside for fear of discovery, and subsequent eviction, and none of them attend school. Akira at twelve is the oldest, and responsible for running the household, buying groceries, and managing the money while their mother is away. Keiko has a tendency to disappear from the apartment for weeks at a time, latching on to new boyfriends who are kept in the dark as to her status as the mother of four. Eventually she doesn't come back at all. The children are left to fend for themselves on a dwindling supply of money, unwilling to go to the police or social services for fear of being separated.
The events of the film were based on a real-life Japanese scandal that happened in the 80s, where a group of siblings was similarly abandoned by their mother for over six months. Because they were kept hidden and had no records, they went unmissed by teachers, social workers, and anyone else who might have raised the alarm. It's sobering context for a film where the extent of the dramatized neglect often seems beyond belief. Eventually the children are left without electricity, heat, or running water, and resort to foraging for expired food and dropped coins. Director Hirokazu Koreeda suggests that the whole of society was complicit. He includes several instances of grown-ups learning about the children's situation, who proceed to offer sympathy or handouts, but decline to take on the responsibility of intervening. It's not their business, so they politely ignore the tragedy unfolding beneath their noses.
However, "Nobody Knows" is not about the absent, irresponsible adults, but about the four children, especially Akira. Yuya Yagira gives an astonishing performance as a boy who is not mature beyond his years, but often seems that way because of the burden of responsiblity he has to shoulder. He tries very hard to be a good surrogate parent, doctoring fake messages and presents from their mother to reassure his siblings, but his frustrations grow day by day. Akira's brother and sisters depend on him and he's acutely aware of it, but he's still a child. Interacting with other boys his age, he briefly forgets himself and acts irresponsibly. The elder sister, Kyoko, initially provides a lot of support, but she crumbles as the situation worsens. Mercifully, Shigeru and Yuki are too young to understand how dire the circumstances are, and they seem relatively unaffected through most of the story.
I've made the film sound dark and depressing, and it often is. Yet I was also caught off guard by the film's many lighter, happier moments. There's a beautiful sequence where the kids all venture outside the apartment for the first time together and explore convenience stores and empty playgrounds. Watching them laugh and play and interact, you have to marvel at the kids' resilience in the face of hardship. Koreeda shows us everything from their point of view, creating a private world of stuffed toys, crayon-scrawled ledgers, fast food containers, and eternally drying laundry. Chocalates and video games become important indicators of happiness. It's only late in the film, when the siblings make friends with a girl who is slightly older than Akira, named Saki (Hanae Kan), that the camera pulls back to reveal the state of the apartment to the eyes of an outsider.
This is my first viewing of a Koreeda film, and it won't be my last. The cinematography of "Nobody Knows" is gorgeous, especially the wide, open, exterior views of Tokyo that greet the children when they step outside. The bulk of the story, though, takes place inside the apartment, a warmly intimate environment where there are multiple shots crowded with children's feet and hands and faces. The pace of the story may sometimes seem unbearably slow, but there are a wealth of small details marking the passage of time, noting the children growing older, and providing clues about minor characters. Koreeda shot the film in sequence, and you can see the apartment falling into disrepair, clothes getting shabbier, and the kids looking scruffier as the film goes on. Many shots also hint at the ending, some almost subliminally. I rewound one scene a few times to make sure that the movement in the corner of the frame had only been a cat.
I wonder if I was hesitant to watch "Nobody Knows" because I sensed that it was going to have a strong emotional impact on me. Depictions of vulnerable children in harsh circumstances are never pleasant. Yet "Nobody" turned out to be far subtler and gentler and restrained than I'd assumed it would be, and now I'm a little sad it took me this long to see it. Time to go explore the rest of Koreeda's filmmography.