At the end of the 1955 noir classic The Night Of The Hunter, Lillian Gish warmly considers the flock of orphaned children who have gathered under her wing: "You know, when you're little, you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again. Children are humanity's strongest. They abide." The four abandoned kids in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows, a delicate, lyrical testament to youthful resilience, could have used a Mother Goose like Gish to take them in, but they demonstrate her thesis with resounding poignancy. Based on a true story, the film patiently chronicles a long and ultimately tragic year in which four children survive in a tiny apartment without their mother or the means to fend for themselves.
The way Kore-eda presents it, the strength of children has something to do with adaptability: Unlike adults, who grow into their social station and have a certain set of expectations, kids are unformed, yet utterly pliable. Combining an adult's sense of entitlement with a child's lack of responsibility, the mother (played as a flighty young monster by Japanese music and TV star You) asks rhetorically in an early scene, "Am I not allowed to be happy?" Given that she's a single mother to four children by four different fathers, the answer is a definite "no," but You takes off to pursue her happiness regardless, leaving her offspring with a meager sum. At a mere 14 years of age, Yûya Yagira takes up parenting duties, stretching the money as far as it will go and improvising the rest in ways that include hitting up a sympathetic grocer for discarded food and getting water from a park fountain when the utilities are cut off. Yagira's younger sisters and brother, meanwhile, are basically under house arrest in the tiny apartment, because their mother smuggled them past the landlord.
Loosely structured around four seasons, Nobody Knows unfolds in a long series of episodes that slowly progress from lightly comic to bracingly sad as the situation deteriorates. For kids, life without parental restrictions can be utopian—all video games, all the time—but things take a turn for the worse during the brief moment that Yagira attempts to be a normal adolescent. Without the momentum of a hard-charging narrative, Nobody Knows makes the grind of one year felt: The standard complaint is that the film is too long at 141 minutes, but Kore-eda wants the audience to feel the passing of time, down to watching the threads fray on the children's garments. These kids may be resilient, but facing profound neglect from their mother, their neighbors, and the community around them, they can only hold out for so long.