SOMETIMES YOU CHOOSE YOUR FAMILY.
Japan has had a rough couple of decades. The fifth largest economy in the world may sound impressive, but the living standard of its population is lower than in the U.S. and Europe. The 2008 financial crisis had dire consequences for the nation and the state of the economy has been a challenge for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since he took office in 2012. The film that has become director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s most talked about internationally addresses some of that pain.
We’re introduced to a peculiar family in Tokyo. In the opening scene, the father, Osamu (Lily Franky), and the young son, Shota (Kairi Jyo), are in a supermarket finding sneaky ways to shoplift whatever things they need. We understand that this is a common and natural practice for them. Osamu is a day laborer and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) works for a laundry service. In the household we also find Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who’s a sex worker and Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an old woman living on her dead husband’s pension.
One cold evening, Osamu and Shota run into a small girl; they know that she lives somewhere in the neighborhood, but take her to their home to give her a proper meal. Later, when Osamu and Nobuyo are taking the girl to her home, they realize that the abused girl is better off with them…
Singled out as a masterpiece
It’s not like the director was unknown before making this film. He had gained a lot of attention in his home country over the years and won awards internationally. In his previous films, such as Still Walking (2008), Like Father, Like Son (2013) and After the Storm (2016), Kore-eda portrayed families from different aspects. But this one was singled out as a masterpiece and also resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
I walked into it without knowing anything about its story… which is why I was pleasantly surprised by its plot twists. Without revealing too much, the film is full of hints as to why this family is not what you might expect. It shows in the dynamic between its members and the surprisingly relaxed attitude they have toward certain activities, such as Aki’s profession, the shoplifting and the fact that they simply take a child with no concern for its parents. Eventually, the odd situation that the Shibatas find themselves in become weirder still, especially for Shota, the person we in the audience likely relate to the most. In interviews, Kore-eda has said that the idea for the film came to him while working on Like Father, Like Son; that was when he asked himself the question ”what makes a family?” He didn’t just want to make an intimate drama that explored the issue, but one that had something to say about society; he was reacting to news stories about people in Tokyo living in poverty and resorting to shoplifting after the 2008 recession. Much of the film illustrate modern life in Japan, with its challenges represented in the family’s constant search for money and Aki’s participation in Japan’s very lucrative sex industry.
At the same time, Kore-eda really finds the core of our and the characters’ emotions; the bonds between these people are complex and heartfelt, even when the time has come to say goodbye in different ways near the end of the story. It’s a superb cast, with Ando giving the most stirring performance as the true adult of the group; she has a couple of emotionally draining scenes.
Kore-eda takes us through the seasons, the cold of winter and heat of summer, slowly familiarizing us with the Shibatas. The camera is intimate and focused; Kore-eda knows when to linger and when to move on. Very impressive.
Shoplifters 2018-Japan. 121 min. Color. Produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi, Akihiko Yose. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cast: Lily Franky (Osamu Shibata), Sakura Ando (Nobuyo Shibata), Mayu Matsuoka (Aki Shibata), Kairi Jyo (Shota Shibata), Sosuke Ikematsu, Miyu Sasaki.
Trivia: Original title: Manbiki kazoku.
Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “It is definitely not a criticism of society, but the feeling that I had going into this movie was definitely anger. It’s not so much anger at a system or at a politician, but rather, as Cate Blanchett put it [during Cannes], ‘These are invisible people.’ Who makes these people invisible? It’s our society as a whole, every one of us. I think this is an issue that I feel very strongly about.” (Kore-eda, Slant Magazine)