Last year’s Cannes Film Festival jury, chaired by Cate Blanchett, awarded its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. It was an uncontroversial choice, since Kore-eda’s features have been appearing on the international festival circuit since the mid-1990s, and his latest film was applauded by critics as tightly controlled, beautifully acted, moving, and clearly one of his best. There was, however, a lingering resistance on the part of some high-art cinephiles to Kore-eda’s coronation, perhaps because in the past he has shown crowd-pleasing tendencies, and because he lacks a signature art-house visual style, along the lines of recent global masters like Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Dardenne brothers, Wong Kar-wai, or Hong Sang-soo. That he is considered by many the leading Japanese director of his generation may say more about the decline of that country’s film industry, once on a par with those of the United States and France, than about his own merit. Nevertheless, he consistently explores certain central themes, writes as well as edits his films, and is very much an auteur.
Shoplifters revolves around a group of poor people who have banded together through economic necessity but have come to consider themselves a family. There is Grandma, on whose pension checks they partially subsist; Osamu and Nobuyo, a middle-aged, marginally employed couple who may or may not be married but who (we learn in time) have bonded over their long-ago murder of the woman’s husband; “Sister,” who earns her living at a peep show jiggling her breasts; a twelve-year-old boy who was abandoned at a pachinko parlor and adopted informally into the family; and, finally, a five-year-old girl whom they find seemingly abandoned in the street, and whom they also take in. When the little girl is eventually reported missing by her negligent parents, the family rationalizes that they can’t be prosecuted as kidnappers because they haven’t demanded a ransom.
They all live and sleep together in one big room, Grandma’s place, whose dense comings-and-goings are deftly captured by cinematographer Ryuto Kondo’s restless, panning camera. Osamu, who occupies the father role in this unofficial family, is a construction worker who has been incapacitated by a job accident; his partner, Nobuyo, is seen working in a laundry, but when the boss decides that either she or her colleague must step aside, the other woman threatens to turn her in to the police for housing the little girl, and Nobuyo is forced to relinquish her job. Neither of these employment losses registers as catastrophic; they are shrugged off as part of the expected hard-luck pattern for those at the bottom of the social scale. Nor does supplementing their slender incomes by shoplifting make them anything like hardened criminals; they are simply trying to get by. Osamu has taught the twelve-year-old boy, Shota, how to steal items in supermarkets, and Shota passes on his knowledge to the (willing) five-year-old girl.
The pack has adapted to their constrained circumstances, and for the first two thirds of the film we watch them operating more or less harmoniously within a daily round. Though the clan mother, Nobuyo, says that people like her who were raised by indifferent parents usually end up being cruel and indifferent to others, the opposite appears true here. Casual kindness and inclusiveness are the rule. Examining scars on the little girl’s body, Nobuyo says she was similarly treated: “If they say they hit you because they love you, that’s a lie. If they love you, this is what they do,” she tells the girl, wrapping her in a hug and beginning to tear up.
The clan goes off to the beach, where they seem at their happiest, but it is here that Grandma dies, at which point the whole scheme starts to unravel. Unable to pay for a funeral, they bury her secretly. The authorities catch on to their deceptions, and the family is dismantled, thanks to the inflexible bureaucratic machinery of the legal system and social welfare. This set of events is brought on by the growing conscience of Shota, who has begun to have doubts about shoplifting. He betrays the family by allowing himself to be caught, injuring himself in the process, and they in turn betray him by running away while he is recovering in the hospital.
Earlier, Shota had trouble acceding to Osamu’s request that he call him “Dad.” Toward the end of the film, there is a brief scene in which the two reunite and confess their mutual betrayals. Osamu apologizes for abandoning the boy and says, “From now on, I’m not your dad.” But in Kore-eda’s universe, the criteria for parenthood are not so easily determined. Shota whispers “Dad” to himself for the first time as his bus pulls away, leaving Osamu waving on the sidewalk.
Hirokazu Kore-eda, born in 1962 in Tokyo, began his film career making television documentaries. The subject matter he chose for them would reverberate in his features. August Without Him (1994) initiated his studies of marginalized individuals: it focused on the first Japanese gay man who openly declared himself HIV-positive through sexual contact. We see him cleverly developing and orchestrating a community of volunteers who assist and nurse him, including the filmmaker himself. We follow the subject’s plucky activist efforts and his slow dying of AIDS; in a coda his community of helpers begin their grieving.
Without Memory (1996) is a documentary about a man who, due to an illness worsened by medical malpractice, has been left with short-term amnesia. He cannot remember anything for longer than a few moments. Continually distressed by his inability to distinguish between dream and reality, he has to outsource his memory to his wife and children. The fact that he was a paramedic before he became ill makes his helplessness all the more poignant. Outrageously, his condition was brought on by hospital budget cutbacks, which deprived him of the necessary post-op vitamins that would have prevented the amnesia. (Kore-eda’s films typically touch on some aspect of social injustice, even if only quietly in the background.)
An earlier documentary, However… (1991), about two suicides and the people they left behind, fed directly into Maborosi (1995), his first dramatic feature. Maborosi is a critically acclaimed film about a young widow whose seemingly happy husband killed himself, and who becomes obsessed with figuring out why. It pursues a slow, dirge-like pace, with many static location shots emptied of people. Kore-eda admits he was smitten at the time with his great Taiwanese contemporary Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose long-shot, melancholy, semiautobiographical films such as A Time to Live and a Time to Die and Dust in the Wind set an influential standard for Asian cinema. Maborosi was Kore-eda’s most Hou-like, self-consciously composed effort: the result was visually ravishing, if a bit too arty and lugubrious. In any case, he would quickly abandon this fly-in-amber manner for more dynamic, fast-paced editing and a darting, catch-as-catch-can camera, both techniques more in keeping with his documentary background.
His next feature, After Life (1998), an international hit, braided together his preoccupations with memory, bereavement, and resilience. In its imaginative premise, the dead are sent to a processing center where each must conjure up a single happy memory that will allow for transition into eternal afterlife. What brought freshness to this sorting-the-dead conceit was its setting: a perfectly mundane, grubby structure, most likely an old schoolhouse, in which the interviewing team tries to pry open the memories of the recently deceased. Part interrogators, part therapists, these angelic bureaucrats view their task as getting the interviewees to face the truth, while prodding even the most crabby, morose, and disenchanted among them to admit that there may have been shining moments when they were loved or contented. The first hour of the movie is brisk and original, while the latter part drags, as the interviewing team turns into a film crew recreating choice recollections for the benefit of the dead.
My sense is that many of Kore-eda’s films go on too long, and I would guess it’s because he labors to extract some feel-good, morally consoling conclusion from a conflict-laden situation. Some of these redemptive moments come across as squishy, as does the frequently corny tinkling music he places in the background and the borderline-kitsch montages he assembles of characters having fun. It is part of what makes him so difficult to characterize: he’s part commercial filmmaker, part art-house auteur.
A quirky little film, Distance (2001), came next: this time, a group of people united by the tragic circumstance that some of their relatives were members of a suicidal sabotage cult, like the Aum Shinrikyo group that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, gather together in the woods to honor the deceased and to contemplate the meaning of their loss. It was followed by Nobody Knows (2004), also inspired by news stories, which many consider Kore-eda’s masterpiece. Nobody Knows is about four children whose party-girl mother abandons them for weeks at a time, going off with lovers and leaving them in the care of the oldest child, an ultra-responsible twelve-year-old boy. He could be the twin of Shota in Shoplifters. This is a repeating figure in Kore-eda: an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy, coming of age, stoical and precociously mature, who watches the indiscretions of adults and shoulders the burden of conscience. This time the boy confronts his runaway mother and accuses her of being selfish. “Don’t I have the right to my own happiness?” she replies inanely. Yuya Yagira’s brilliant performance made him the youngest person ever to receive the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award.
Kore-eda has been justly celebrated for his handling of child actors. Whether professional or amateur, they have none of that coyness and insufferable preening often seen in Hollywood movie children. Rather, they tend to be reserved, dignified, wary, holding secrets inside, playful among other children but never flirting with the camera. In Nobody Knows and Shoplifters, when the children talk to each other, they are far less secretive than with adults. Kore-eda’s cinema vérité background allows him to eavesdrop, to covertly watch them as though he were filming a documentary.
His stories about children under duress fit squarely in the neorealist tradition, from Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, down through Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, and Héctor Babenco’s Pixote. That so many landmarks of neorealism and its descendants have focused on children must derive from the opportunity of dramatizing their vulnerability and relative innocence against a harsher social backdrop. In Kore-eda’s films there is also the recurring theme of “throwaway children,” who live on their own by their wits, and who grow up too quickly, relinquishing the ordinary protections of childhood.
In Still Walking (2008), one of his most personal films, Kore-eda switched to a middle-class milieu: the stern, withdrawn patriarch who keeps his grown children at a distance, and his wife, who at first seems grandmotherly but comes to reveal a much more carping, unforgiving side, and whose grieving for a long-dead son prevents her from fully acknowledging her living one. “That kind of relationship, where the parent and the child are very out of sync emotionally, it’s very reflective of my personal experience,” Kore-eda told a New York Times interviewer, Dennis Lim. The surviving son has, in the face of his mother’s disapproval, married a widow with a young boy, who also can’t bring himself to call his stepfather “Dad.” Sibling rivalry and competition for scarce parental approval produce a tense, resentful atmosphere that inevitably leads to confrontation. Whatever familial reconciliations ensue feel more like a smoothing-over than a true understanding. The mother is placated for a moment by a butterfly that follows her, and that she is convinced is the spirit of her dead son. (The dead don’t ever really go away in Kore-eda’s films: the young widow reassures her son that his father is still inside him.)
In After the Storm (2016), one of Kore-eda’s most delightful and consistently sustained works, a shaggy, likable novelist with writer’s block and a gambling problem supports himself as a private detective, meanwhile tailing his ex-wife and trying to get back together with her. The writing is comic and the characters sharply drawn, including a marvelously pragmatic grandmother and another of Kore-eda’s thoughtful early adolescent boys, who confesses, “Sometimes I’m a child, sometimes I’m a grownup.” In the end, after the novelist’s attempt to stage a rapprochement with his ex-wife fails and she tells him “It’s over,” he says with resignation, “I understand. I’ve always understood.”
Between Still Walking and After the Storm, the prolific Kore-eda made several other features and television series, and even tried his hand at some genre pictures. Air Doll (2009), a mildly erotic fantasy about a life-size inflatable sex toy that comes alive and goes to work in a video store, was seen by some critics as an embarrassment, though I found it steadily watchable and finally touching; it is, in any case, another study of a marginalized figure trying to fit into an increasingly technology-crazed, dehumanized world. As she perishes in a heap of garbage, to be recycled, some floating milkweed fuzz becomes a symbol for her escaping soul. Recycling itself is a kind of reincarnation, though it remains unclear whether Kore-eda himself believes in an afterlife or is merely showing how his grieving characters cling to superstitious consolations.
Further branching out into genre pictures, he made The Third Murder (2017), a competent if by-the-numbers legal thriller that doubles as a polemic against capital punishment. But his specialty has always been the family film. His 2013 feature, Like Father, Like Son, was well received, even winning the Cannes Jury Prize that year. The plot revolves around an effort to correct an error by which two boys, now around eleven, were switched at birth, raising the characteristic Kore-eda quandary: Who is the legitimate parent, the biological one or the one who can best love the child? In a follow-up feature, Our Little Sister (2015), three siblings discover that their father has had another daughter and try to bring her into their family. I must admit I found Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister too studiously heartwarming, and their visual technique too close to a conventional made-for-TV product.
They did, however, reinforce this director’s exploration of his favorite theme, which I take to be the attempt, in the face of illness, emotional damage, loss, divorce, abandonment, or death, to rebuild the family unit. We see it in August Without Him, in which the HIV patient enlists a cadre of volunteers to care for him; in Without Memory, in which the man’s loss of identity via amnesia is compensated for by farming out memory to his wife and children; in Maborosi, in which the widow remarries and tries to root herself in a second family; in After Life, in which the bureaucrats of the dead form a supportive community; in After the Storm, with the futile effort to heal the couple’s separation; in Like Father, Like Son, via the reassignment of the two boys, for better or worse; in Our Little Sister, with the attempt to incorporate the newly discovered sibling; and of course in Shoplifters, which is explicitly about an artificially reconfigured family. That point is made clear when Nobuyo tells the grandmother, “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.” The grandmother replies, “If only to have no expectations.”
This theme has special meaning in Japanese culture, as the traditional extended family, with its reverence for the elderly and its stay-at-home moms, began to break down. In postwar films such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Naruse’s Mother, Kinoshita’s A Japanese Tragedy, and Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night, Japanese directors took up narratives about the fractured family unit. The theme particularly colored a type of film known as shomin-geki, which Joseph L. Anderson and Donald Richie defined in their classic The Japanese Film as “the drama about the common people…. Essentially a film about proletarian or lower-middle-class life, about the sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter relations within the family, about the struggle for existence, it is the kind of film many Japanese think of as being about ‘you and me.’”
Kore-eda’s warm sympathy for ordinary people, which sometimes ensnares him in sentimentality, may explain why his characters so often seem normal, unquirky, relatable like “you and me,” and also why a film like Shoplifters is popular at the Japanese box office. He refuses to pathologize his characters’ misdeeds, to turn them into grotesques, as his more edgily perverse predecessors Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura might have. Compare, for instance, his rather tolerant handling of the parents’ exploitation of their son’s light fingers with the creepy couple in Oshima’s Boy, who collect insurance by having their son “accidentally” hit by vehicles. Even the shocking revelation that the couple in Shoplifters once killed the woman’s husband is casually finessed by their rationale of self-defense: he’d have killed them if they hadn’t gotten to him first.
The tenderness with which Osamu treats his adopted son, Shota, while waiting patiently for the boy to call him “Dad,” makes it impossible for us to view him as anything but a good man. Noticing the boy eyeing a woman’s cleavage on the beach, he assures him that a man’s interest in female breasts is normal, as is the boy’s waking up “big” with an erection in the morning. He is helping to steer the boy through puberty by quelling his fears of being weird. As a father-figure he has good instincts, and even his bad ones seem reasonably motivated. When the authorities demand to know whether Osamu feels guilty for making his children shoplift, he says, perplexed, “I didn’t know what else to teach them.”
The humanity of these indigents is underscored in a lovely scene involving sex. Earlier, Osamu was asked when he and Nobuyo “do it,” given the lack of privacy in their one-room flat, and he answered solemnly that there’s no need anymore for that sort of physical activity; their love is on a different plane, it comes from a heart connection. Shortly after Nobuyo loses her job at the laundry, we see them alone in the flat; it’s raining outside, it’s very hot, and the couple, stripped down, are eating noodles. Nobuyo is wearing a new nightgown, which she explains she treated herself to after getting fired, along with some toiletries. They discuss the possibility of opening another bar, as in the old days, but the idea goes nowhere. She whispers in his ear coquettishly. He seems alarmed, falling backward as she mounts him, he stalling for time, not ready. We cut to later: he is humming, obviously pleased with himself. “I did it. Hey, I did it, right?” She is smoking a cigarette, amused by his pride, and says, “I didn’t break a sweat.” She then proposes “another round.” He says, “Hey, how old do you think I am?” Just then the children enter, soaked from the rain; Osamu is spared having to do it again.
The scene works beautifully in part because of the chemistry between these two fine performers: Osamu is played by the well-known Japanese illustrator, designer, and actor Lily Franky, whom Kore-eda has used in the past and who brings a comic touch to his role as an aging, near-derelict paterfamilias. Sakura Ando’s Nobuyo goes from being gruff to revealing unsuspected layers of sexiness and mischief. The scene is also shrewdly written and shot in an unfussy way, with the camera remaining still the entire time, making full use of the shabby room’s crowded decor. When the plot takes a darker turn soon after and the couple’s way of life collapses, the memory of that warm exchange continues to resonate.
It is clear, even without his having confirmed it in interviews, that the filmmaker regards this poor family’s crimes as petty. “Of course,” said Kore-eda, “these criminals should be criticized but I am wondering why people get so angry over such minor infractions even though there are many lawbreakers out there committing far more serious crimes without condemnation.” Yet having abstained from harshly judging the group’s lawbreaking, he nevertheless steers them in the last part toward a climactic atonement. In a scene near the end in which Osamu and Shota visit Nobuyo in prison (she has taken the rap for the family’s illegalities, since Osamu already had a criminal record), we see her uncharacteristically in a luminous close-up. No longer trying to justify her adoption of semi-lost children, she tells her mate, “We’re not good enough for him,” indicating Shota, and tells the boy, “If you really want to, you can find your mother and father.”
I can’t help thinking the shot’s auratic quality is a tribute to Robert Bresson’s transcendent final scene in Pickpocket (referenced earlier by the shoplifting hand techniques), and maybe even a reaching for similar spiritual depth. The destruction of this atypical family’s arrangement has forced them all to confront the unthinking way they had been operating. That somewhat redemptive conclusion is offset by a bitter last shot of the little girl, returned to her abusive mother who never wanted her, staring off into the distance and trying to make sense of it all.