Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004) is one of those highly regarded recent films that just somehow never made it to Asheville during its original release, so it’s nice to see it finally show up. The film is based on an actual occurrence in Tokyo in 1988 when four children were abandoned by their mother to live as best they could in a small apartment. Koreeda’s film makes it clear from the onset that it’s a wholly fictional version of that. That’s probably just as well. Koreeda’s film is sobering enough. The real story is much more grim.
While the material is pure tabloid sensationalism, Koreeda’s approach to it is anything but. The film is approached in a subtle manner — one in which it’s not even clear what kind of story this is at first. It starts off seeming to be a fairly straightforward tale about a mother (played by a pop star called You) and her son (Yuya Yagira) moving into a new apartment. There are hints that the boy is anxious about something, but it isn’t until the moving men are gone that we find there are two more children hidden in suitcases, and another (too large for Samsonite) waiting to be sneaked in after dark. Even then the tone of the film is faux-light. Slowly, the mood darkens as we find that only the one child is allowed to go out (the others are to stay out of sight under all circumstances) and that he is truly the one in charge, since the mother is often absent from home.
As the film progresses, she is less and less there until the children are left to fend for themselves. Sad and somber, this is a film made of small, sometimes heartbreaking, always very human details. Since it’s rather slow and a bit overlong (139 minutes), it may not be for everyone, but for viewers with the patience, the rewards are many.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke