NOBODY KNOWS *** 1/2
STARRING: Yagira Yuyu, Kitauru Ayu, Kimura Hiei, Shimizu Momoko
DIRECTOR: Hirokazu Kore-eda
RUNNING TIME: 141 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic elements and some sexual references
THE LOWDOWN: A moving portrayal of the older brother trying desperately to support his three younger siblings. In Japanese with English subtitles.
It's such a hard sell; director Hirokazu Kore-eda does not make it easy for the viewer. In "Nobody Knows," Kore-eda tells a story of hopelessness, despair, loss and struggle.
These aren't distant concepts to be watched passively on a screen; the characters in the midst of all this bleakness are children, four children who have been abandoned by their mother.
How the story of a family of children eking by can be tender and inspirational is part of the wonder of "Nobody Knows." Despite its length -- nearly two and a half hours -- it's a small, slowly unfolding movie, with small dramas and even smaller everyday victories for these children. The reality of poverty is stripped down and laid bare for us to comprehend.
Keiko is a woman with four children by four fathers. They have just moved into a small apartment in Tokyo, but they must be quiet so the landlord doesn't find out there is a family of five living there.
Twelve-year-old Akira acts as a surrogate parent while their mother is at work. The children study at home, never having been to school. Inside this artificially insular world, the children are fine; it's all they know.
One day, Keiko disappears, leaving behind some money and a note that says, "your mother's going away for a while. Please look after Kyoko, Shigeru and Yuki." This is in the autumn.
Keiko does come back -- but only to pick up some clothes. She says she'll be back for Christmas. After New Year's Day, Akira realizes they've been abandoned.
By devising their own set of rules, the four manage to get by. It works for them until their cocoon is pierced by bill collectors.
With their world collapsing, the four venture out of the apartment for the first time come spring. They play in the park, filled with joy. Soon the utilities are cut off, and they are visiting the park every day.
The performances of the children are all astonishing, but particularly that of Yagira Yuya, who plays Akira and won an acting prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
"Nobody Knows" is profoundly sad, but the children manage to maintain such innocence that there is a thread of optimism that runs throughout the film. And Kore-eda has such a graceful touch, what is in actuality the children's slide into desperation has a beautiful, hypnotic feel.