I'd had this movie in my Netflix queue for months before I finally clicked on it last night. I mean, how often are you in the mood for a movie that's not only long (140 minutes) but depressing? The based-on-a true-story tale of a bunch of kids, the oldest just 12 and the youngest not yet 5, whose mother abandons them in their Tokyo apartment, Nobody Knows is one of those real-life horror stories about the dark side of urban anonymity.
The slow pace takes a little getting used to, but it pays off as this near-silent movie tells us about the kids and their environment by following them in what feels like real time. Most of the talk is in the first few minutes, when the children's mother is still around. A petite, cheery woman with a voice like a little girl's, she acts almost like a kid herself, charming the youngest girl and boy, Yuki and Shigeru, with her playful chatter. But nearly everything she says turns out to be a lie, concocted to make her look like the loving mother of a happy family.
In fact, their apartment is a prison for the kids, since she doesn't want the landlord or the men she dates to know she has young children. All but the oldest, Akira (Yûya Yagira), are forbidden to go out or to make loud noises, since the neighbors might hear. They can't even go to school. Akira and his sister Kyoko are old enough to know this isn't right, but the little ones accept the rules they live by sunnily. When their mother leaves them in Akira's charge—as she has done before—they adjust to that too, playing inside the apartment all day as their brother fends for them all, stretching the cash their mother left while things slowly grow increasingly desperate. His ingenuity and pragmatism is impressive, but he doesn't know what to do when Shigeru starts to rebel, or Kyoko gets so depressed she starts hiding in the closet, or Yuki falls off her chair and doesn't get up. He won't ask the authorities for help, we eventually learn, because the child welfare people stepped in once before when their mother left and separated the four of them. As Akira tells a sympathetic cashier at the grocery store where he shops, "it was an awful mess."
Aside from that cashier and a few kids Akira befriends, nobody seems to know that their mother is gone, or to notice the solemn, shaggy-haired boy walking through the town in the middle of a school day, even when he starts hauling water home from the park after their electricity and water is cut off. Like Lilya 4-Ever, this film made me wonder how many times I've passed by some child who needs rescuing without even seeing him or her.
The film was shot in sequence over the course of about a year, so the actors age as much as their characters (Yagira's voice starts to change halfway through) while their clothes age convincingly. More importantly, the kids grow used to the camera. At first, they sometimes grin with shy self-consciousness, but before long they're so natural-seeming and affecting that I'm not surprised Yagira won the 2004 award for best actor at Cannes for his work in the film.
The sparing use of music (except for an unfortunately sentimental song at the end) draws attention to the selectively amplified ambient sound, which highlights things like the teddy bear sandals Yuki's siblings slip onto her feet in a key scene. The cinematography also focuses our attention on telling details—and on the feet and hands director Hirokazu Kore-eda seems to be fixated on. You don't realize just how much those details are adding up until Akira decides to let the younger kids out, several weeks after their mother has gone, and they all tumble down the stairs and into a gorgeous spring day. They just do ordinary kid stuff—run down the street to a playground, play, pick up a friend, admire some flowers growing through a crack in the pavement—but seeing these kids finally get just one normal afternoon is incredibly moving.
The film stops rather than ending, as the kids and their friend Saki head home from a shopping trip. There's no crawl to tell us what became of the real kids who inspired the story, either. I wanted something more comforting, but I'm glad Kore-eda didn't indulge that impulse. Reassuring us that those kids are all right would just make it easier to keep ignoring the abandoned children who live in our midst.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.