Screened by Zawya last week, together with other award-winning films such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, Matteo Garrone’s Dogman and Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy As Lazaro, the Japanese film Shoplifters had its Egypt premiere at the second Al-Gouna Film Festival last September.
It is the latest by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has become critically acclaimed over the last two decades. Kore-eda’s debut Maborosi premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1995 and won the Golden Osella award for best cinematography. Kore-eda has won over 50 awards since. Last year his film Shoplifters was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, making him the fourth Japanese filmmaker to win the prestigious award after Teinosuke Kinugasa for Gates of Hell in1954, Akira Kurosawa for Kagemusha in 1980, and Shohei Imamura for The Ballad of Narayama in 1983 and The Eel in 1997.
Once again in this film Kore-eda interrogates the ties holding together the modern Japanese family. His 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Award at Cannes, is the story of a young father tormented to find out that his six-year-old son was substituted on his birth at the hospital. In Shoplifters, the filmmaker takes family ties far deeper, with the film deconstructing and rebuilding the relations and emotions linking three generations.
Based on real events, as Kore-eda explained in a post-prize interview at Cannes, the film depicts what looks like a working-class family living in a tiny house outside Tokyo, where they depend on the pension of the grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), the minimum-wage part-time labour of the father Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and the mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and the elder daughter Aki Shibata (Mayu Matsuoka) working in a high school student-themed sex shop, seducing customers in uniform from behind a glass window but not engaging in sexual activity. But the father, the mother and the younger son Shota Shibata (Jyo Kairi) still have to shoplift for their needs.
By focusing on the details of daily life – the family’s love of potato croquette and fizzy drinks, or their delight in fireworks during a trip to the beach – the filmmaker illustrates this exhausting financial situation without slipping into melodrama.
Written by the director, the film opens with Osamu and Shota doing some grocery stealing, with the suspense of both the choreography and cinematography of the suspenseful scene recalling 1950s neorealism, but this is not how the film proceeds. Encountering a little girl seemingly abandoned in the snow, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) — who later shows evidence of abuse — father and son take her home to feed her, but will she become a new member of the family?
In this way, gradually, with a light touch, information about existing family members begins to come through, giving the viewer one shock after another. The viewer finds out that, though Osamu likes Shota to call him father, the two are not in fact related, nor is Hatsue related to either Osamu or Nobuyo – who are in fact called Enoki Shota and Tanabe Yuko, but they changed their names after killing Yuko’s abusive husband – but only to Aki, whose real father is the son of Hatsue’s husband by the woman for whom he abandoned Hatsue, and still hands her money as compensation for his father leaving her. All this begins to become clear when Hatsue dies and the “family” is too scared to contact the authorities and initiate proper funerary procedures and instead bury her in the garden.
This is the turning point.
Soon after Shota breaks his leg while running from supermarket security and is arrested, exploding the entire “family” structure. And so what starts out as an examination of poverty and destitution becomes a philosophical meditation on the nature and reality of family ties. A bitter but beautiful experience…
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Familt fragments
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