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Screens Home alone in Tokyo 

Four children slide into poverty when their mother leaves them to fend for themselves

Twelve-year-old Akira (Yñya Yagira) is left to care for his three siblings in Nobody Knows.

In the United States, a nation founded on revolt against the mother country, being home alone is not so dreadful. In Home Alone, when Macaulay Culkin's parents forget to bring him along on their trip to Europe, the 8-year-old manages to thrive without them. But in Japan, where ancestors are worshipped and elders respected, an independent child is a calamity. "Inspired by actual events," Nobody Knows is a grim account of child abandonment in contemporary Tokyo.

Nothing is disturbing in the opening sequence, when Keiko (You) and her 12-year-old son, Akira (Yagira), move in to a pleasant apartment complex, until they open a couple of large suitcases and two other children, 7-year-old Shigeru (Kimura) and 5-year-old Yuki (Shimizu), emerge. A fourth child, 10-year-old Kyoko (Kitaura), wanders in from the railway station. All are Keiko's offspring from different, vanished fathers, but because the lease to her new apartment stipulates a limit of two residents, the others have to remain hidden. Keiko explains to her offspring that, in order to avoid eviction, they must keep their voices low and not be seen outside. The children do not attend school, and, though Keiko tries to help them with math and Japanese, Nobody Knows will not convince anyone of the merits of homeschooling.

During her time with the children, Keiko is playful and affectionate. But she disappears from the apartment for increasingly long stretches, leaving the eldest, Akira, in charge of shopping for the family; Kyoko does the laundry and cooking. Keiko explains that she is in love with a new man and that after they are married, Akira, Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki will be able to move in to a big house with them. When Keiko finally disappears for good, it seems a fair assumption that her new man decided not to take on four additional dependents.

Nobody Knows
(Dare mo shiranai)

Writ. & dir. Hirokazu Koreeda; feat. Yñya Yagira, Ayu Kitaura, Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You (PG-13)
Anxious that the four siblings not be separated, Akira refuses to report their plight to the authorities, but he does make futile attempts to solicit help from his mother's former lovers. One, a security guard at a pachinko parlor, denies responsibility. "Every time I did it with your mother," he insists, "I used a condom." For the first few months, the parentless household is a model of efficiency and tidiness. But gradually, especially after bills come due that Akira cannot pay and utilities are cut off and food becomes scarce, the apartment disintegrates into a filthy, reeking clutter. Saki (Kan), a street-smart adolescent who recently abandoned her illegitimate infant, moves in and serves as a surrogate mother.

In the culture of bonsai and haiku, where fastidious attention to minute detail is a virtue, the collapse of this secret domestic world is an especial horror. Director Hirokazu Koreeda does not exactly condemn the mother, a failed singer who is more childish than her children. "I'm not allowed to be happy?" she asks before deserting her brood - whom she seems to love, in her own way, enough to leave behind money and tender messages - to be with a lover. Nobody Knows seems incensed less by a parent's abandonment of four vulnerable youngsters than by a society in which nobody seems to know or care about the suffering of children. How could this disaster have escaped the neighbors' notice? Nobody knows, but now we do. Shot in natural light with excruciatingly long takes, Koreeda's discomfiting, claustral film is almost as much of an ordeal for its audience as it is for its victims. It insists on riveting our attention to the consequences of not paying attention.

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February 24, 2021

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