Wouldn’t it be great, says every child once, if our parents left and we could do whatever we wanted? No, it would not. It would be terrifying, and daunting, and nearly impossible to endure. Children need their parents more than parents need their children, and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s masterful Nobody Knows expounds on the lopsided tragedy of that truism with bittersweet grace. Inspired by a true story of four children left to fend for themselves in a Tokyo apartment, this is no Disney Channel fantasy of abandonment as one long sleepover party. It’s about one boy struggling to maintain his decimated family’s dignity in the wake of a parent’s utter disregard for their survival.
When we first see Akira (Yuuya Yagira) he’s guarding a suitcase, stroking it with absent, unconscious affection. Once his flighty mother (played by the confoundingly named You) has suitably conned the landlord of their new apartment, we see what’s been smuggled inside: Akira’s brother and sisters Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). They giggle at being released from their Samsonite cocoons, but they could just as easily have suffocated. Their mother doesn’t seem to notice how she’s endangering her children, in suitcases or out of them. A giddy narcissist with the puffy face of a teenager who overslept and awoke mid-adulthood, one morning she leaves a breezy goodbye note attached to a pile of money. Akira and his siblings do their best to soldier on, but slowly the gas and water and electricity are shut off. The cuffs on Akira’s only pair of pants climb higher on his lengthening legs as the apartment slowly succumbs to squalor. As Christmas passes without a word from Mom, it’s clear she’s never coming back.
Writer/director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s quiet, elegant film would not have the same tragic-sweet resonance if the children that form the key ensemble were not as exquisite, real, adorable, and true. It was a stroke of genius to cast an actor (Yuuka Yagira) on the cusp of puberty so that Yagira’s growth spurt and voice change midshoot illustrate Akira’s maturation in ways mere dialogue can’t. A brilliant, elegiac meditation on childhood’s end, Nobody Knows stands eye to eye with the other great film true to the reality of children adrift, Night of the Hunter, and its famous summation: “Children are Man at his strongest. . . .They abide and they endure.”