All but abandoned in a tiny apartment by their loving but wacky mother, four children undergo a premature course in adulthood in “Nobody Knows,” a considerable bounceback by writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After-Life”) after the disappointing “Distance.” Pic won’t click with more literal-minded Western auds but could find a small arthouse niche with Asiaphiles and upscale viewers after further fest travels.
Rejecting the socio-realistic, grungy approach such subject matter would have received from most Western directors, Kore-eda sketches the inner, spiritual and emotional lives of the children with subtlety and sensitivity, delivering the goods after a seemingly directionless first half.
Story is “inspired” by a true event, the so-called “Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo,” that happened in 1988, when a quartet of kids, all of different fathers and never registered at birth, lived on their own for six months after their mom left. Kore-eda penned his first draft of the script 15 years ago, immediately after the event; the finished film takes only the basic facts, spinning a story that, like his previous three movies, conjures up a world of imagination and parallel existence apart from everyday realities.
Film plunges into the story using an almost documentary style, as Keiko Fukushima (TV personality You, in an engagingly spacey, gravel-voiced perf) moves into a small apartment, introduces her 12-year-old son, Akira (Yuya Yagira), to the landlord but neglects to mention she has three other children, between the ages of 4 and 10, who clandestinely join her and Akira in the cramped apartment.
As is typical for a movie that gives the audience no more information than it absolutely has to, Keiko’s day job is never specified. How she ended up with four unregistered kids is also never explained, though from her behavior and scraps of dialogue she seems a ditzy, incurable romantic; soon after arriving she announces she’s “in love again.”
Family life seems content and well-organized, with No. 1 daughter, 10-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), calmly supervising household chores, Akira patiently studying on his own, and the restless, 7-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) playing around with 4-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). Largely shot with a handheld camera, the first half-hour will test many auds’ patience, as every last detail of life within the tiny apartment is detailed.
One morning, Akira wakes up and finds a note from his mom saying she’s “gone away for a little while. Please look after the other kids,” and finds cash enclosed in an envelope. Akira dutifully banks the money and sorts out the household accounts, and life goes on pretty much the same inside the apartment. When Keiko returns a month later, laden with presents, she tells Kyoko she was “just working.”
Some time later, Keiko vanishes again and, though the kids don’t know it, this time it seems to be for good. As fall moves into winter, and spring turns into the broiling heat of summer, Akira tries to maintain the illusion of family life as the money Keiko occasionally sends starts to run out and the risk of discovery by the landlord grows.
Though the film is bolted to the real world by many practical details of day-to-day life (food, money, clothing), and during the first hour is lensed in a realistic way, Kore-eda imperceptibly creates a world which is increasingly bordered by just the kids’ emotional horizons. As order and cleanliness start to break down inside the apartment, the film’s visual style actually becomes more, rather than less, rigorous; and the whole movie, which seemed to be going nowhere, gradually takes on a shape and sense of purpose. As a casual tragedy reshuffles the kids’ lives, the final reels deliver with a quiet power.
Pic’s magic — and the thing that accounts for much of its almost transcendental feel in the later stages — lies in its offhand approach to details that, in the hands of many other filmmakers, would have assumed center stage. There are no large emotions on display here, no major confrontations or crises, no reveling in grunge: The kids are sustained by the hope that their mother will eventually return, and when Akira realizes she may not, he smoothly assumes his role as head of the family, while dealing with his own growing pains.
Yagira, who carries much of the pic, is immensely impressive as Akira, learning the rules of life and correcting his mistakes all on his own. Unable to go to school like other kids, he tries reaching out for friends, finally — he thinks — finding a soulmate in a mysterious young beauty, Saki (Hanae Kan), from a comfy family, who’s playing hooky from school during the daytime. Akira’s longing for a father figure is also beautifully sketched in a brief sequence where a school baseball coach invites him in for a game.
With most of the film shown through Akira’s eyes, the other children are mainly supports. This is hardly a problem with ankle-biters Shigeru and Yuki, but one misses more detail on Kyoko, appealingly played by Kitaura, who starts off as the family’s main tentpole but is later sidelined in favor of Akira.
Though shot in 1.66 and at least 50% set within the apartment, film has no sense of physical claustrophobia. In fact, as the children are more and more thrown on their own resources, the borders of their universe seem to expand, with ever bolder trips into the outside world and their growing imagination. And as the pic becomes more rigorous visually, Kore-eda’s habit of inserting small details (closeups of feet, small objects, etc.) assumes greater significance.
Music by pop duo Gontiti underlines the essential optimism driving the children, with a vibrant melody on guitar and ukulele. A song late on, following the movie’s bleakest but most magical sequence, may strike some Western viewers as too saccharine but is echt-Asian in sensibility. Lensing by Yutaka Yamazaki, spread across a real year in the young thesps’ lives, subtly catches the changes in seasons, and editing by Kore-eda himself is mobile throughout.