A stunning Japanese drama that will captivate and ask the question what makes a family a family?
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters follows a family in Tokyo barely getting by lead by the father figure Osamu Shibata (LilyFranky) who in between occasional construction work has to turn to petty theft from neighbourhood stores with Shota (Jyo Kairi). Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (played by a stand out performance from Sakura Ando) who works in a laundrette, but also supplements her pay by nabbing whatever notes appear from a neglected wallet.
The family mostly rely on the grandmother’s (the late Kirin Kiki) late husband’s pension in their makeshift home to keep from being made homeless. Aki (Mayu Natsuoka) performs in a strip booth to round off this ragtag family with her occupation further highlighting the depths in which people will go to make sure they can survive.
On one fateful escapade from the now burgled stores, Osamu and Shota encounter a child Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who can’t appear to get back inside her home. Upon seeing the condition of Yuri and overhearing her family argue Osamu decides to informally adopt Yuri and cut her hair and rename her so to dispel any suspicion as to her real identity.
Kore-eda is a filmmaker that enjoys allowing the story to play out at a gentle pace and by doing that we learn about the delicate ecosystem that this family lives in. Everyone has a role and uses their skillsets to the utmost when required from the young Shota to the matriarchal Hatsui. There is a strain to this family that exists beyond their financial predicament and as we begin to feel for each member of this family we begin to understand why that strain and slight distance exists.
Family drama’s in which there is some form of a struggle is almost always at the heart of a Kore-eda film. In his first feature film Maborosi (1995) a family has to recover after a sudden suicide, in I Wish (2011) two brothers are separated when their parents’ divorce. As a father, he has focussed on the family aspect of his films for a number of years, almost consciously so. But, while the theme of family is still prevalent in Shoplifters it isn’t the stereotypical one that we would expect and he has instead decided to open himself up more to the social issues that he is now seeing in Japan.
Asking questions on social issues, such as what happens to those who fall through the cracks of the system in Japan. We are given a glimpse of Japan that as Westerners we rarely get to see and it is one that Japanese cinema rarely releases to international audiences. Kore-eda stating as much when asked about it by referencing that attaining a budget for a film presenting social issues in Japan can become difficult. Newspaper articles detailing how families in poverty neglect to report the death of an older family member who is receiving pensions so they can have a continual income struck a chord with Koreeda, as did the lack of foster families in Japan.
The Shibata family find that Yuri is abused and instead of informing the police, they “adopt” her. Blood relationships are important in Japan and in interviews, this fact has continually been mentioned by the filmmaker. Instead of finding a better place for the abused child, it is often found that the child will be returned to that abusive environment. Kore-eda brings up a story of when he was researching the film where he met a small girl in a refuge for abused children he spoke to her about what she was learning and spent meaningful time with her he noted her joy at being finally noticed. By removing Yuri from her abusive, though possibly financially better off environment will she find these strangers as a better family than her blood one?
We get to see how this family work together to just merely exist in this tiny apartment, how they cannot improve upon their circumstances due to the recession and the impact it is still having coupled with the apparent slow collapse and restructuring of the middle class in Japan. Kore-eda mentions that the class divide in Japan has grown starkly over the past decade and we see exactly how this new society views these broken people and almost even more so to the children in the family a severe level of harsh judgement. With more and more stories of people stuck in the same circumstances as the Shibata’s emerging around the world the question for them isn’t if this family can stay together and remain invisible to the police. It is for how long they can remain invisible and what happens when their world inevitably catches up with them.
A must see if you are lucky to have a cinema nearby that is showing it. Kore-eda is another brilliant piece of cinema and in truth, an important one. Bring the tissues, you might very well need them.
RATING – A+
Shoplifters is out in select cinemas now