Maven of the pensive in-between, Hirokazu Kore-eda has landed firmly on earth as we know it since the high-concept metaphysics of 1998’s After Life. His 2001 Distance (shown in the U.S. only at the San Francisco Film Festival) patiently surveyed the numbing bruises left by the Aum Shinrikyo sarin incident, and his new film, Nobody Knows, explores the context and minutiae of a mundane urban news item. The 1988 “Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo” reads like a typically scary page out of the Post: Four young and undocumented siblings were left by their mother to live alone in a Tokyo apartment for six months, until one of them, weakened by malnutrition, was accidentally killed. Shades of Kitty Genovese, the scandal that resonated in Japan was not so much the mother’s abandonment as the fact that no one in the building realized what was going on or cared to notice that the three youngest children even existed.
The brood’s vivacious mother (You), cursed with a warbling sine-wave vocal pitch that sounds like Cyndi Lauper impersonating an alley cat, arrives at a new apartment with only a 12-year-old son, Akira (Yuya Yagira, a winner at Cannes), and mountains of heavy luggage—from which emerge, once the door is locked and the shades are drawn, the other kids. Ten-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura) is a budding teenage girl silently yearning for a normal life, seven-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) a rambunctious lost boy, five-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu) an oblivious cherub living out her own ad hoc preschool playtime. The rules, as Mom delineates them in game-playing fashion, are: no school, no leaving home, stay out of sight, stay quiet. A full three-quarters of Nobody Knows, which was shot in chronological order over the better part of a year, is set in this penny-ante two-room flat, and Kore-eda’s intimate, ultra-realist visual scheme makes the ordinary textures and unfiltered city daylight bounce off the screen. (His attention to quotidian sound—Yuki’s fiddling with crayons, say—borders on the ultrasonic.)
The movie’s repetition and stasis are integral to its thrust; Kore-eda never provides relief from the children’s ingrown perspective. Only Akira can visit the streets and shop, and his trips into Tokyo are framed for maximum contrast, powerful images of a diminutive stranger in a strange land of tumultuous opportunity and harrowing self-exposure. Of course, as the money Mom left begins to run out, life in the apartment commences a devolution. Kore-eda sticks to the story’s facts pretty closely, but obviously let circumstances and his cast create their own crisis in the making, complete with impromptu poetic touches. At one point in the quiet dissipation, Yuki convinces Akira to escort her out into the nightened city to find her mother, the tot shuffling along in slippers that squeak with every step. It’s a heart-sundering vision of preadolescent helplessness that rivals passages of Landscape in the Mist and Ponette.
Nobody Knows could’ve hit more targets with fewer arrows, given a little more care. The soundtrack’s ukulele music cues are a trifle automatic and obvious, the close-ups (Kyoko’s angrily peeled, Mom-applied nail polish) can be unnecessary exclamation points, and the general ambience is oddly anesthetized—Akira and his charges are frustratingly inexpressive. Still, it’s hard to resist the maddening disappearance of Akira’s last coin—into a pay phone as he waits on hold—or the final train ride, with suitcases. Calling it an “issue” film ignores that fact that movies concerned with the fragile reality of childhood are as precious as one-pound pearls.