Hirokazu Kore-eda, the writer-director of Afterlife, returns with Nobody Knows, the finest film of the year to date. Inspired by actual events, Nobody Knows details the troubled existence of a family of young children. Emotional truth and delicate visual cues distinguish a story so patiently naturalistic that the viewer will feel a part of this dysfunctional family.
As the film opens, single mother Keiko (Japanese pop star You) and her twelve-year-old son Akira (Yûya Yagira, who won top acting awards at last year's Cannes Film Festival) unassumingly move into a new apartment building that does not welcome young children. Slowly, the rest of Akira's siblings ascend to the apartment: ten-year-old Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), seven-year-old Shigeru (Hiei Kimura), and four-year-old Yuki (Momoko Shimizu); the children's secretive presence obliges them to play quietly and avoid any trips outside.
Before long, their flighty, alcohol-prone mother reveals herself to be an unreliable mess prone to disappearing for long stretches of time. Each time she leaves, nobody knows when or if she'll back. The title refers both to the secrets each family member attempts protectively to keep, and the existential angst of these trapped children, who—when not ignored—face ridicule or contempt.
The film comprises a year in the life of the family, and Kore-eda achieved striking results by filming chronologically over the course of a year. When his mother falls out of the picture, Akira must play "man of the house" and his physical and mental growth into that role comes with a hardening, haunting cost. Some of the best scenes play You's oblivious mother against the older siblings. One minute, Keiko tells Akira that the sky "stinks of sunlight. What a beautiful day...I really think this time, probably—". The unfinished thought soon betrays that Keiko's hopefulness is unwarranted. Passing by her mother and then Akira, a world-weary Kyoko intones, "She stinks of booze."
The film's sophisticated structure, the compositional symmetry that links separate moments of the film, and the subtle gradations of time over a 141-minute running time slowly eat away at the viewer. One aching stanza of visual poetry involves Kyoko's nail polish, applied by Keiko; we become aware of the mother's chronic absence as the nail polish, in successive tight shots, sadly fades from Kyoko's fingers. Kore-eda implicates the viewer in the children's plight, portrayed with relentless honesty by a remarkable group of child actors. A neo-realist drama that packs a dramatic wallop, Nobody Knows is brilliant filmmaking and required viewing.