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Free Swinger: Moments of unchecked joy are rare in Kirokazu Koreeda's look at a marginalized family in 'Nobody Knows.'

The Shut-Ins

'Nobody Knows' is smart, not sentimental, in portrait of a motherless family

By Richard von Busack

THE ASTONISHING delicacy and sadness of Nobody Knows has already made the Japanese import a succès d'estime. Maybe just imaging how clumsily this true-life story would be executed in the United States is enough to highlight the particular grace with which director and writer Hirokazu Koreeda carries it off.

The four Fukushima children have just moved into a new apartment. But only two of them really get to see it happen. Concealed in separate suitcases are the rambunctious boychild Shigeru (Hiei Kimura) and the baby of the family, Yuki (Momoko Shimizu). Their mother has hidden them in order to outwit a landlord who never would have rented to a fatherless family of that size. And later, after dark, the eldest girl, Kyoko (Ayu Kitaura), smuggles herself into the apartment. The mom of this mass mobilization deputizes her 12-year-old-son, Akira (Yûya Yagira), to keep an eye on his brothers and sisters and to make sure they never attract the attention of the outside world by leaving the house. Once they're all established, the mother begins to extricate herself. At first she leaves for a week, giving Akira about $150 to take care of his brothers and sisters. Then the absences begin in earnest, and soon the children are on their own.

There are no tears in this film; the loss of the mother becomes something dealt with in the Japanese manner: something that's pretended not to be noticed, something that's left unsaid. Because of the film's intelligence, it is hard to choose an aspect of Nobody Knows to praise first. As the mother, an actress known as You is absolutely brilliant. She's skinny, a malign kitten, with hennaed hair and a scratchiness in her throaty, affectedly cute voice. While her narcissism is pure evil, you understand the dreadful charm she has to her children. Mom is also a child—one that has neglected to grow up—and it's easy to understand why the kids stay up late just to watch their mother sleep. (Part of it must be just to make sure she doesn't leave them in the night.)

A badly composed Japanese movie would be more of a matter of comment than a beautifully composed one. Still, Nobody Knows has an acute eye for the passing of seasons in the urban counterfeits of the countryside—the bend of a concrete-embanked river, a small, cherry-tree-filled park from where the children haul water after the water company disconnects them; a mountainlike flight of concrete steps where they at last play, and the garden of weeds the little Fukushimas raise in Styrofoam noodle cups on their balcony. One notices how director Koreeda lingers on the hands and feet: chipped fingernail enamel or the increasing wear and dirt on a shoe to let you know how long the mother has been gone. The soundtrack—consisting mostly what sounds like a duet of ukuleles—reinforces the subtle wistfulness of the film. There is not a forced, mawkish, badly acted or talking-down-to moment in this drama.

Nobody Knows (PG-13; 141 min.), directed and written by Hirokazu Koreeda, photographed by Yutaka Yama Saki and starring Hiei Kimura and Yûya Yagira, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell.

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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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