Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (known also for Maborosi (1995) and Our Little Sister (2015)) breaks the viewer's heart with Nobody Knows (2004), a film about the abandonment of four children who do what little they can to survive in a tiny Tokyo apartment, in Ota-ku it seems, as their dreams are slowly suffocated by the neglect and their desperate circumstances.
It begins with a young mother and her eldest son, Akira, arriving at the building they're about to move into, and they seem happy, normal. The two youngest children arrive next, secretly delivered to the apartment in suitcases, and the elder sister, Kyōko, comes separately by train, and we now know something is horribly wrong. Uncomfortably, we also see this family making do with what they have, and so we remain positive and hopeful. The children each have a different father, and they're not allowed to attend school, and only Akira can go outside, since someone has to buy groceries and pay the bills. The mother stays out all night, and often doesn't come back at all. Eventually she disappears for months without a word, leaving the children to fend for themselves.
The film, based on the real-life story of the Sugamo child-abandonment incident, will make you cry. Kore-eda is masterful at using everyday objects to feed the narrative and arouse emotion, such as filling the frame with a filthy toy piano on a broken leg, or dwelling on a struggling plant in a muddy, cracked Cup Noodle container. But the primary reason to watch this is Yūya Yagira's incredible performance. The depth of his expressions and how he communicates a range of feelings with his eyes, as a twelve-year-old actor no less, is extraordinary. Not only was he the first Japanese actor to win the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, he also became the youngest actor to win it. To sum up, Nobody Knows is a powerful, thought-provoking film with the courage to take on a social problem that's far too often ignored.