In Nobody Knows four children of different fathers ranging in age from 4 to 12 are abandoned in a Tokyo apartment for unpredictable periods while Keiko, their childish, pleasure-seeking mother, goes off with men. Since landlords won't rent to mothers with very young children, Keiko presents Akira, the oldest, as her only child and sneaks the other three in, two of them inside suitcases. Thus, except for Akira, who buys groceries and cooks, the children have to stay indoors. Even the balcony is off-limits, except for the older girl Kyoko who is mother's little laundress.
To show what children's lives would be like with no adults around to nurture them, or simply to impose order, the director Hirokazu Kore-eda employs a shooting style made up of "edgy" choices--off-center framing, movement in and out of frame and focus, cutting before and after the beat, sequencing of scenes without familiar narrative logic. (The camerawork is by Yutaka Yamasaki, the editing by Kore-eda.) It's a paradoxically quiet expressionistic technique, a virtuosic way to make the audience feel as if we were observing without intruding.
Kore-eda's approach is like Gus Van Sant's in Elephant. In Elephant, however, Van Sant was fighting against his material. You went in assuming he made the movie to explain the attack at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and yet he was so concerned (and rightly) about merely dramatizing editorial banalities that he developed a technique to show what it must have felt like to be at the school that day not knowing what was coming, i.e., not knowing what someone would want to make a movie about. Van Sant's technique--long, wandering, unbroken takes successively covering the same time without intercutting--was an interesting attempt to prevent his movie from having the center everyone expected it to have. (Unlike the Columbine shooting itself, it's pretty much impossible to have a rote response to Elephant.)
By contrast, Kore-eda's intention and style in Nobody Knows are more smoothly aligned. The point of his technique is to replicate with the inherently intrusive camera what day-to-day life is like for these kids whose plight "nobody" knows about. (It's the opposite of reality TV which is documentary in the simplest sense of being non-fiction but can tell you only what people behave like when they do know the camera is on.)
At the same time, it would be a mistake to think of Nobody Knows as naturalistic. Kore-eda's technique is actually a highly formal and intentional way of making everything feel unobserved, offhand, diffuse. It's a fabulous technique: more consistently than in such great naturalistic works about the suffering of children as Vittorio De Sica's The Children Are Watching Us and Shoeshine, René Clément's Forbidden Games, and the first story in Satyajit Ray's omnibus movie Two Daughters, you're conscious of the visual and rhythmic correlatives for devastating neglect.