Based on a series of actual events that took place in 1988, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows opens with a classic scene of familial rebirth: Twelve-year-old Akira is moving into a cramped Tokyo apartment with his young mother, Keiko. When the two introduce themselves to their new landlords, a married couple, Keiko politely explains their situation: Dad spends a lot of time away on business, and so the two are forced to look after each other. Keiko asks the landlords to keep a watchful eye on them as well and, after a curt bow, retreats to the moving van to begin unpacking her new life.
But inside the van, an entirely different story unfolds -- literally. Keiko and Akira unzip two suitcases, each of which contains a neatly stowed child. There's Yuki, an adorable, cherubic girl of 4 or 5, and Shigeru, a slightly older boy prone to anxious temper tantrums and bouts of screaming. Akira then retreats to the train station to collect the pretty Kyoko, a stoic pre-teen who's the oldest of the bunch. All four children, it turns out, belong to Keiko, and all were conceived with different fathers. But this is information Keiko plans to keep guarded; a single mother living with bastard children is a huge cultural no-no in Japan, a society that places the utmost importance on the concept of "saving face." If the landlords learn the truth, the whole family will likely be evicted. And so the family members go about the business of living their lives, but governed by a strict set of rules: no loud voices, and no going outside -- except for Akira, who goes grocery shopping and acts as the man of the house while his mother works all day and then parties well into the night.
But regardless of the tenuousness of their situation -- none of the children goes to school, for instance -- the five live in relative happiness. And even when Keiko disappears for a month, presumably to spend time with a new boyfriend, Akira manages to keep his half-siblings in line; everyone studies from textbooks at the kitchen table after dinner, and Shigeru, a finicky eater, is made to clean his plate, carrots and all.
Eventually, though, things fall apart. Keiko leaves the children for a second time, and after she fails to return home for Christmas as promised, it becomes clear that the kids have been abandoned. With little money to pay for bills or food, Akira begins wandering the streets of Tokyo in search of his mother's ex-boyfriends -- men who may be his brother and sister's fathers. But one is a taxi driver and one works in a pachinko parlor, and neither is willing to give much in the way of assistance -- financial or emotional. ("I'm not Yuki's father," one promises Akira. "Every time I did it with your Mom, I wore a condom.") Soon, the young family's electricity is shut off, then the water.
Nobody Knows was filmed over the course of a year, which allowed Kore-eda, who began his career with a series of award-winning documentaries, to show the natural growth cycle of the children. As they wash their laundry in a nearby park and forage for spare change in payphones and vending machines, their hair slowly grows long and ragged, and Akira's voice deepens slightly. Ultimately, Nobody Knows is less a gripping cinematic experience than it is a graceful, if slow-moving sketch. Even when Akira, desperate to live something of a normal life, falls in with a crowd of trouble-making boys, it's clear that Kore-eda means for us to understand the beauty and innocence of childhood. And while the film is mostly shot inside the family's tiny apartment, scene after scene neatly winks at its audience with the tiny-but-imperative details of the children's lives: little Yuki, who is somehow wise enough not to finish her box of chocolates all in one sitting, or the rambunctious Shigeru, who sweetly cares for the children's potted plants.
From the outside looking in, Nobody Knows surely seems to be not much more than a tragic story of sadness, as was the Affair of the Four Abandoned Children of Nishi-Sugamo, the real-life event on which the film was based. But what Kore-eda has accomplished with Nobody Knows -- a touching, nonjudgmental document of innocence -- is in its own way nearly as magical as the passing of youth and adolescence itself. In Japanese, with subtitles.