Kore-eda's second dramatic feature After Life (released in the US in 1999) is one of my all-time favorite films. I urge everybody reading this now to seek it out. I think it's amazing. So you can imagine I was quite excited to see Nobody Knows, especially since Kore-eda's 2001 film Distance was never distributed in the States.
Inspired by true events, Nobody Knows charts the year-long decline of four young siblings, aged 5 to 12, who have been abandoned in a Tokyo apartment by their detestably irresponsible mother. In an unhurried, naturalistic way, the film follows them through the seasons as their quality of life deteriorates, not marked by the usual sadistic scenes of being robbed, raped, or otherwise betrayed – as, I feel, a lot of other directors would have resorted to including – but playing out as a single trajectory downward; one great, slowly compounding crisis as opposed to a series of sharp minor ones.
Though it is worrying to watch, Kore-eda has picked a particularly appealing quartet of young actors (a quintet, really, as a lonely neighbor girl befriends them and becomes part of the family unit) who are very sweet and clearly at ease in front of the camera, and he includes several scenes of normal childhood levity that become all the more heartbreaking in the context of his characters' hopeless situation.
Nobody Knows is not for the impatient, and the story's final tragedy is so muted – in part because it is seen through the uncomprehending eyes of children – that it doesn't resonate as fully as it could. Still and all, the kids are great, Kore-eda's visual direction is in peak form, and there are many, many poignant moments.