Don't let the PG-13 rating fool you. Though it's acted almost completely by children, Nobody Knows is not a film for kids. A poignant, deeply affecting tale of child neglect and abandonment -- all the more disturbing for being based on a true incident -- this Japanese film (with English subtitles) is the latest from writer/director Kore-eda Hirokazu, best known in this country for his hauntingly beautiful After Life.
Nobody Knows opens with Keiko (played by first-time actress You) and her twelve-year-old son Akira (Yagira Yuya) moving into a one-room apartment in Tokyo. They can barely carry their three heavy suitcases up the stairs. The reason why becomes obvious once they are safely inside the door: The bags open and out pop three more children, daughters Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu) and Yuki (Shimizu Momoko), and a mischievous, hyperactive boy, Shigeru (Kimura Hiei). Although Keiko and the kids have made a game out of the subterfuge, the viewer cannot share their lightheartedness. The sense of claustrophobia and cruelty is chilling -- and an unnerving harbinger of things to come.
The three youngest children are not allowed out of the apartment, not even onto their small balcony, lest any of the neighbors report them to the landlord. Only Akira is permitted outdoors. Nobody objects; they all seem accustomed to the setup.
More child than adult herself, Keiko is easily distracted and completely unreliable. Some nights she doesn't even bother to come home. Although alarmingly casual about her responsibilities as a mother, she is also loving and attentive. It's an unexpected combination and one that raises conflicts in the viewer.
When things are going smoothly, Akira is able to relax and be just a normal kid, but he clearly worries that Keiko will disappear one day. To make things as easy as possible for her, he dutifully shops, cooks, cleans and takes care of his younger siblings, but the strain is evident in his preternaturally solemn expression and anxious eyes.
One day Keiko does indeed disappear, leaving behind a small wad of cash and a note promising to return by Christmas. Akira tells his siblings that their mother has had to relocate for work and will be coming home soon -- but he knows she won't.
The rest of the film charts the apartment's gradual slide into squalor and the children's corresponding decline. Eventually the money runs out. A sympathetic convenience-store clerk slips Akira food whenever possible, but the effects of hunger are evident in the children's increasingly sunken eyes. When the water and electricity are shut off, they can no longer wash themselves or their clothes. Garbage piles up and the very air in the apartment seems to grow heavy and dirty.
The child actors, none of whom had ever acted before, are utterly natural and convincing. (Yuya walked off with the award for best actor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.) The characters actually seem less disturbed by the downward turn in their lives than the audience does. The one glimmer of hope, in fact, is the innocence and resilience they exhibit; they still enjoy being with one another and don't seem to recognize the cruelty of their world.
The audience, however, does understand and is placed in the untenable position of not being able to reach into the screen and help. That fact hardly relieves the viewer of guilt or frustration, however. Although Hirokazu is never explicit, the film seems to be an indictment of society -- any society that would allow a situation like this to exist.
Is it really possible that nobody has noticed? A well-to-do adolescent girl, emotionally estranged from her parents, befriends the children. The fact her own parents don't seem to notice her absence suggests that child neglect is not limited to those who physically desert their kids.
At nearly two and a half hours, Nobody Knows is unnecessarily long. Half an hour could easily have been cut without diminishing the story's power or its poignancy.
Some people may wonder why they should bother seeing a film that promises to leave them depressed. Two reasons immediately present themselves: First, Nobody Knows is beautifully made; and second, unless people are willing to confront society's ills, nothing will ever change.