"Dare mo shiranai" (Nobody Knows) by Kore-eda Hirokazu is all the more poignant for being based on a real-life scandal in Japan. In 1988, four children were found abandoned by their mother, living for six months in a squalid Tokyo apartment with no running water, electricity, or food, where one of the children, weakened by malnutrition, was accidentally killed.
As the film begins, the family is moving into yet another apartment; they are continuously evicted for having too many children. The two youngest children arrive smuggled in suitcases, already a sign of the startling neglect to come, as the mother portrays this as a game. The hot, tired children unfold from their suitcase prisons as the mother laughs, claps her hands and tells them "Good job!" in her Minnie Mouse voice. The children's flighty mother is barely more than a child herself, unable to cope with real life and care for her large brood (each child has a different father).
It is never explicitly stated what her job is, but she frequently leaves the children for long stretches of time, expecting eldest son Akira (Yuya Yagira) to care for ten-year-old Kyoko, seven-year-old Shigeru, and five-year-old Yuki. The children are like children everywhere: they long to play outside, be rambunctious, play in the park, be free to dream. Instead, they are virtual prisoners, unable to leave the apartment lest they be caught. Even the small balcony is off limits. Akira does all of the outside shopping, bill paying, and cooking. None of the children go to school. "Why do you want to go to school?" their mother asks. "Famous people don't go to school." Like who? Akira demands. His mother can't come up with a suitable answer.
The inevitable happens: their mother is infatuated with the latest boyfriend, and skips town for good. Akira holds off telling the other children for as long as possible; after all, their mother is frequently gone for months at a time. He is forced to spend down, but it isn't enough. The utilities are eventually cut off, and the apartment descends into a pit of hell, with garbage covering everything. The children must use the bathroom in the park and wash their clothes in a fountain, and survive off of leftover sushi handouts. Akira falls in with a group of thug-like high schoolers who use him, taunt him, and try to get him to shoplift, and the youngest children suffer the most. Somber Kyoko taps out melodies on her toy piano, Shigeru breaks the rules by running wild outside, and Yuki colors and draws pictures that cover every inch of the apartment. Their situation becomes more and more dire; even though the landlord's wife has seen the state of the apartment, no social services are called in. The children are left to fester as their clothes unravel and they slowly succumb to malnutrition. An accident occurs, prompted out of boredom, that changes their close-knit lives. The ending is sparse, haunting, and we are not told what becomes of the children, or if their mother was ever found.
The child actors were essentially filmed living in the apartment throughout an entire year of filming, so in some ways, "Nobody Knows" plays out like a documentary. The scene where they play in the park for the first time was really their first time leaving the apartment in months. It is heartwrenching to watch them spying on "normal" children down below, children who take school for granted, are allowed to ride bikes and play in the park. There is no creative outlet, no exercise, no nourishing food, and yet, although weakened, their spirits still demonstrate the resilience of childhood. Kore-eda's haunting portrait of solitude and survival at its darkest is difficult to watch, but worth the journey.