By Aliza Ma in the November-December 2018 Issue
The following is an excerpt from the November/December 2018 issue.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s cinema has always been that of the outsider. His characters are often dissociated from the status quo of a society driven by conformity and tradition. These include Akira in Nobody Knows (2004), the eldest of the abandoned Fukushima children who has to assume adult responsibilities and take care of his siblings; Keita and Ryusei in Like Father, Like Son (2013), whose lives are upended when they realize they were switched at birth due to a hospital mix-up and must learn to live with strangers who are their real biological parents; and Suzu from Our Little Sister (2015), who gets adopted by her estranged half-sisters after their father’s death. These outsiders provide a window into the elaborate inner dynamics of domesticity, and a larger social canvas on which Kore-eda can investigate the ways families are formed by and give shape to social and cultural mores. In 1996, he made a documentary called Without Memory, about a father who lost his short-term memory after a mishandled medical procedure. Through the grain of crude primitive video, the filmmaker presented the agony and confusion of a subject alienated from the flow of daily life, his family, and even his own memories and identity, with tenderness and empathy. Kore-eda, a consummate examiner of the socially estranged and marginalized—who has cited the cinema of Ken Loach and Mikio Naruse as dominant reference points—remains ceaselessly curious about the emotions and motivations of the displaced.
In Shoplifters, Kore-eda’s sociological examinations coalesce in the form of an idiosyncratic family portrait, inspired by news stories of people illegally receiving their parents’ pensions long after they had passed on. Its main cast of characters form three generations, though no one is related by blood: father Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), brother Shota (Jyo Kairi), and grandmother Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, who also appeared in Kore-eda’s Still Walking, 2008; I Wish, 2011; Like Father, Like Son; Our Little Sister; and After the Storm, 2016) live together in meager conditions on the outskirts of Tokyo. They rely on petty theft and Hatsue’s pension to supplement the household’s low income. One day on their way home from a looting trip, Osamu and Shota find a little girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki) alone, cold, and hungry, and decide to adopt her. The newly formed eccentric family of six begins a copacetic home life together, giving Juri, who is covered in bruises when she’s discovered, the tender domestic affections she had always been lacking. In time, however, long-buried secrets from Osamu and Nobuyo’s past begin encroaching on this new normalcy and threaten to tear the family apart.
Traces of Kore-eda’s previous films imprint upon the Shoplifters narrative. The portrayals of the Shibata family members broaden and redevelop the methodical—almost scientific—yet compassionate examinations of nature versus nurture inherent to Keita and Ryusei’s plight in Like Father, Like Son. Osamu’s apparent closeness with the guarded Shota is animated by their trips to the store and their talks, during which Osamu often tries to get Shota to call him “dad.” Although Nobuyo and Juri have only just met, an aching moment of mother-daughter bonding in the bath reveals that both have similar burn marks—a reminder of their past traumas and a bizarrely shared birthmark-like stamp. The whole family goes—as most characters eventually do in a Kore-eda film—to the beach on vacation. Acknowledging how lucky they were to have found each other as they watch Aki and Juri play in the sand, grandmother Hatsue warns Nobuyo that this newfound familial bliss is probably not going to last much longer. Nobuyo replies: “I know that. But sometimes it’s better to choose your own family. If only not to have expectations.” The mood of their trip oscillates between pure delight and melancholy as the Shibatas ponder how the wholly unnatural circumstances that brought them together—which have made them temporarily immune to the the constraints of social norms, provided shelter from past ordeals, and forged deeper emotional bonds than they ever had with their real families—may be too quixotic to sustain.
Closer Look: Shoplifters opens on November 23 and a retrospective Six by Kore-eda runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center November 19 to 22.
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Aliza Ma is a New York–based programmer and writer specializing in Asian cinema.