In a small Tokyo apartment, twelve-year-old Akira Fukushima (Yuya Yagira) must care for his three younger half-siblings when their mother (You) abandons them.
It's easy to overrate a film like Nobody Knows. It's easy to be blinded by the seriousness of the mournful story it tells. Nobody Knows is not the earth-shattering, perception-altering film many reviewers make it out to be, but it's an excellent film and, with the sorry state of Japanese cinema, it comes as a breath of fresh air. One of the one criticisms other reviewers have is the film's lengthy runtime. I personally don't get why people consider this a valid criticism. A lengthy runtime simply allows a film to provide greater character development, greater plot development, and greater immersion, none of which I am opposed to; yet, it's easy to see how reviewers who have all their lives suckled the teet of Hollywood and its ninety-minute rule might perceive 141 minutes as grueling.
To be fair, some scenes do outstay their welcome, but the runtime allowed director Hirokazu Koreeda, with whose work I was previously unfamiliar, to capture the children's gradual decline over a period of months. Each scene, no matter how long it lingers, drips with poignant significance and relevance to the overall plot. We see small touches like Yuki's (Momoko Shimizu) crayons worn down to the nub toward the end of the film and the perpetually deteriorating state of the children's clothes. This film is a heartbreaking slow burn, though I can honestly say that I didn't find it to be much of a tearjerker.
What impressed me most about Nobody Knows was the subtlety of it all and the beautiful restraint exercised by director Hirokazu Koreeda. There are no cheap tricks to tug at your heartstrings. The performances are all wonderfully subdued. You is perfect in her role as the children's mother, herself remarkably childlike. Her performance was the highlight of the film; of course, she doesn't stick around for very long since she winds up abandoning her children, each of them from a different father.
Once criticism is that the ending was a bit of a cliffhanger. I found myself doing research on the affair of the four abandoned children of Sugamo to find out what actually happened. What I found out was that the film is only very loosely based on the actual events and that, in actuality, things may have been even grimmer than what we see in the film. Japanese viewers may be familiar with the affair that inspired this film, but foreign (i.e., non-Japanese) viewers might benefit from a little research, if only so the abrupt ending doesn't take them by surprise and leave them hanging.