Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-Eda Written by: Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2004 » Region/Time: Japan, 141 minutes

Starring: Yûya Yagira as Akira Fukushima » Ayu Kitaura as Kyoko » Hiei Kimura as Shigeru » Momoko Shimizu as Yuki » Hanae Kan as Saki » You as Keiko, the mother.

Nobody Knows dramatizes the true story of a single mother who abandoned her four children in an apartment in Sugamo, Tokyo, Japan in 1987. The movie was filmed over an 18 month period in an actual apartment. The cinematography is observant and non-intrusive. In fact, the child actors became so used to the camera, they were oftentimes captured completely unaware they were on film. Over the course of the film, the children grow noticeably older – especially Yûya Yagira whose voice cracks near the end of the movie. Yagira won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Akira.

The film begins with the mother and eldest son, Akira, 12, moving into a new apartment. Details are sketchy, but it seems as though they have been kicked out of their previous home. After greeting the landlord and his wife, they carry up two suitcases to the apartment and we see there are a boy and a girl hiding inside each suitcase. Shigeru, around 7, is a typically rambunctious and rowdy boy and Yuki, about 4, is a ridiculously cute girl. The other daughter, Kyoko, 10, arrives by train later that evening.

During their family dinner that evening, the mother, who seems curiously immature and childlike herself, outlines the rules of the house. In order to not get kicked out, the three youngest are not allowed outside the apartment – not even the balcony. The children seem excited and the mother seems loving, but we can see Akira and, to some extent, Kyoko, are wary of her.

One evening the mother comes home late, clearly drunk, with food for the children to eat. She tells a story of Akira’s father, who worked at the airport. Akira can been seen listening intently to this, while pretending to be occupied with preparing dinner – perhaps he has never heard this story before. The film is frequently observant in this manner.

The same evening, as Kyoko is getting her nails painted, she tells her mother she wants to go to school, to which the mother replies, “You wouldn’t have fun at school.” Upon waking up the next morning, Akira finds his mother has gone, leaving behind 50 000 yen and a short note. As money, gas, electricity, food and water become increasingly scarce, the future of the children becomes inevitable.

For what could have been an overly sentimental melodrama, Nobody Knows is remarkably restrained in its portrayal of four children trying to survive on their own. In perhaps the most heartbreaking sequence, the youngest child, Yuki, is convinced Mother is coming home on her birthday, and so asks to go to the train station to wait for her arrival. She dresses up in her best clothes, including shoes that squeak, although they no longer fit her. Naturally, the mother doesn’t show up, and Yuki and Akira walk back home in the dark, each footstep squeaking.

The hand-held camera work, use of natural lighting and amateur actors used lend immediacy to the film. At moments, it is hard to believe this is not a documentary. Unlike many lesser movies, this one shows instead of telling. Notice, for example, how in one shot of a child drawing on a overdue gas bill, we are not only “told” that the natural gas has been turned off, but that they cannot afford paper or new crayons, yet they are still doing the same things that other children do. Although this may sound like a horrendously depressing movie, the film is filled with many bright moments in the lives of these four children. Fate was ultimately not kind to these children, but the style of the movie allows the viewer to feel like he has shared in stolen moments and, by observing, shared some responsibility for their suffering. The film is ultimately an indictment not only of the mother, but also the adult world, which, although it comes close to intervening, seems to shy away from asking too many questions about these dirty, malnourished children without adult supervision.

However, I don’t like the overly schmaltzy song at the end of the film, which interrupted my crying, dammit. Kore-Eda has a new film playing at Cannes this year. The film, called Air Doll, appears to be about a blow-up doll that comes to life. Maybe it is a remake of Mannequin?

Up Next in the Film Canon: Bruce Willis does some acting.