Some movies slip past you like water in a stream, leaving little impression behind. Others remain, like a lovely shadow, haunting the imagination...

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Some movies slip past you like water in a stream, leaving little impression behind. Others remain, like a lovely shadow, haunting the imagination for some time. “Nobody Knows,” Hirokazu Kore-eda’s exquisite drama about four children abandoned by their single mother, belongs in the latter category. It’s a shimmering dream of a movie, creating a world both beautiful and horrifying, lulling its audience and then jolting it.

As the title indicates, nobody knows that young Akira (Yagira Yuya), Kyoko (Kitaura Ayu), Shigeru (Kimura Hiei) and Yuki (Shimizu Momoko) live by themselves in the cramped Tokyo apartment rented by their mother, who, seemingly tired of parenthood, left behind some money and disappeared one day. (The nameless mother is played by an actress known as You, which adds an intriguing note to the movie’s final credits — seeing “The mother: YOU” on screen makes us feel in some way implicated in the children’s plight.)

Akira, who is 12, is a watchful, worried boy; Kyoko, a year or two younger, is likewise responsible beyond her years. As the film begins, they have just moved into the apartment with their mother, methodically unpacking as if they’ve done this many times before. The landlord doesn’t allow small children, so Shigeru and Yuki are smuggled in, hidden in suitcases. It’s a moment that should be horrifying but is actually charming, as the children emerge giggling, delighted by the game.

“Nobody Knows” maintains an extremely delicate balance with the character of the mother, who’s no monster but a helium-voiced child herself. In the absence of an authority figure, Akira and Kyoko have grown up: He does the shopping, carefully fingering the fruits for freshness; she, in a matronly cardigan far too big for her, takes care of laundry. (None of the children attend school.) Their mother, before she disappears completely, waltzes in and out, laughing and playing and occasionally a little drunk. The younger children adore her; the two older ones love her but are frustrated. “You’re so selfish, mother,” says Akira to her. “I’m not allowed to be happy?” she replies.

The mother leaves in late autumn, and the film then follows nearly a year in the lives of the children, as they slip almost imperceptibly from order to chaos. (It’s loosely based on a true story, in which four abandoned children were discovered in a Tokyo apartment in 1988, having lived alone for six months, with nobody in their building aware of their plight.) At first, the children celebrate Christmas and birthdays, keeping the apartment orderly, expecting their mother to return anytime. But she doesn’t, and the children are slowly transformed into skinny waifs, living in squalor, hiding from the light.

Kore-eda (previously best known for the 1998 drama “After Life”) filmed “Nobody Knows” chronologically, so we can watch his cast grow up: Akira and Kyoko begin puberty, the little ones transform dramatically, the way small children do over a year. He creates a mood so heartbreakingly real — there’s never a false note in the children’s performances — that you can almost smell the stale air in the apartment, where no breeze ever seems to enter.

“Nobody Knows” is profoundly sad, but it’s made with such artistry that it’s almost uplifting; you watch it mesmerized, immersed in the strange community the children create. And some of its details are startlingly lovely: an unexpected cherry blossom; a child’s red-crayoned drawing (labeled “Mommy”); Akira’s innocent smile as he looks at his happy siblings, early in the movie. The film ends with a repeat of its initial image of a dreamy bus ride, and a sudden freeze-frame.

What happened next, nobody knows.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com