After the preview screening of Nobody Knows, a woman in line for the restroom remarked, “What a devastating film.” Although surprised, I nodded reflexively. I suppose any film about a mother’s willful abandonment of four children is occasion for such damning praise. But although its premise sounds more like the stuff of after-school specials than art house cinema, Nobody Knows skirts melodrama to present a nuanced and sympathetic picture of childhood.
Sequestered in a three-room apartment by their carefree mother, Keiko (You), the four children, each by a different father, have never been to school. The very existence of three of them has been hidden from the landlord, and they are forbidden to venture outside. The eldest, 12-year-old Akira (Yûya Yagira, whose understated performance won the Best Actor Award at Cannes), is responsible for the shopping and cooking, while his sister Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) does the laundry and dreams of taking piano lessons. While their mother works, they look after the hyperactive Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and five-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu).
The children are relatively content in their circumscribed world, until one morning Akira awakes to find only a brief note from their mother and an envelope of money. Stoically shouldering responsibility, he works hard to maintain a semblance of normalcy for his siblings, keeping careful records of his spending, forging Christmas letters from their mother, and promising her imminent return. But as their financial and physical situation grows dire, the careful rules and expectations that have governed their lives begin to erode beneath the simple imperative of survival.
While the sight of young children begging for day-old sushi and bathing in public parks in the heart of Tokyo is “devastating,” the strength of Nobody Knows is not its realism, but its quiet highlighting of redemptive moments and small triumphs amidst such adversity. The first time they venture out of the apartment together, the children notice some small, red flowers growing between the cracks in a parking lot. Immediately fascinated, they gather the seeds, and start their own little garden on the balcony of their apartment. Although the symbolism is a bit overwrought — the plants and children thrive despite neglect — the film takes the time to portray the children’s rapt absorption in their project, despite the fact that their world is unraveling. Rather than appeal to our sense of pity, the film balances its bleak story with a child’s perspective on the world, where joy can replace despair in a split second.
Most of the cinematography approximates this “child’s eye” view, sometimes bordering on the claustrophobic. Interiors are carefully composed close-ups of arms, hands, hair, dirty dishes, crayons, and small toys, recording the minutiae of everyday life and reminding us of the severely limited world in which the children have been raised. Even outside, we rarely see the sky; exterior shots are clogged with the static of urban life — signage, traffic, telephone wires — or simply shot from above. In one scene, the camera pauses to record the shadow cast by a jungle gym, a tangle of intersecting lines revealing an unexpected beauty and complexity.
Nobody Knows relies on these elegant visual cues to convey emotion. Like the muted expressions of its protagonists, much of the film’s palette consists of drab neutrals, with splashes of red punctuating this surface. Yuki selects a red crayon to draw a picture of her absent mother. Kyoko spills a bottle of her mother’s red nail polish, and recoils as if cut, the polish smeared on her finger like blood. Akira, in a rare moment of abandon, finds a red ball in the park and plays a game of catch with the trees.
The importance of such details was a central premise of an earlier Koreeda film, After Life (1998), in which the recently deceased arrive at a way station where they must select a single moment from their lives that they will then experience for eternity. Once selected, the moment is re-created for them and recorded on film. If After Life is about simulation and recollection — a thinly veiled metaphor for the project of filmmaking itself — then Nobody Knows gestures in an opposite direction, emphasizing film’s ability to document immediate reality and change over time. Shooting over the course of a year, Koreeda allowed the child actors to age appropriately over a time span corresponding to the film’s narrative. Although he tested audiences’ patience with such “real-time” techniques in the esoteric Distance (2001), with Nobody Knows, he has struck an affecting balance between documentary realism and poetic subjectivity.
In the end, it is this fine balance that prevents the film from listing over into high melodrama, despite its emotionally charged subject matter. It neither pities nor lionizes its protagonists, allowing the gravity of their situation and their irrepressible will to percolate throughout the film. In Japan, as in much of the post-industrial world, underage prostitution and child-on-child violence have reached unprecedented levels; children are increasingly both consumed and neglected. Nobody Knows honors the innocence of childhood, even as it slips away.