Among the also-rans and drift plastic of so much Hollywood trash how pleasurable to bring reader’s attention to a five star film, the last of that ilk I reviewed ‘Son of Saul‘ the riveting study of Hitler’s death camp. I gave it five-plus stars. It is that rare thing, a film of high originality and searing truth.
This year, 2018, the winner of the Palm d’Or in Cannes hits our screens, surely Best Foreign Film when the Oscars come around. Shoplifters is not an American independent production, nor British, nor European but Japanese. Like their cars, the quality of their films is reliable.
There were expressions of surprise when this quiet, gentle work of art from Hirokazu Kore-eda won the fabled prize, but that first impression soon faded into acceptance that the finest films can slip past us without us spotting their lasting qualities immediately, especially when surrounded by work of a similar strength.
Shoplifters is a human drama of the kind Scots filmmakers are apt to make but inject too heavy a dose of miserableness – usually focusing our attention on a youthful individual or small cast surviving in poverty surroundings, the work invariably autobiographical. Kore-eda describes his film as “socially conscious”. Sounds Scots to me.
However, Kore-eda is first and foremost concerned with adult issues, constructing low-key nuanced studies of human nature. He came to prominence in the mid-Nineties, over the years delivering wee gems as passively as he films them.
Shoplifters rises easily to the giddy heights of a masterpiece. You will not find any action men, cold killers, adulterers, gun toting psychopaths in his story, only two very gentle and understanding police officers.
Kore-eda has been steadily amassing a fine portfolio of carefully crafted studies of human nature and behaviour in crowded domestic situations, people faced by forces they can barely control. He began his career in television and has since directed more than a dozen feature films, getting on with his day job, you might say, including Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), and After the Storm (2016).
I first noticed his work when he won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the superb Like Father, Like Son. I found Shoplifters to be flawless.
The film creeps up on you. It yields its pleasures stealthily. Kore-eda follows his character’s everyday routines, so that his narrative proceeds at the winding pace of life. Knowing this should not put readers off seeing the film. Every little scene grips you. The accumulation has you rooting for each and every one of them.
We are presented with, what appears on the surface, a well- adjusted happy family. They live on the edge of an unfashionable corner of Tokyo in a house barely big enough for one person, nevermind the five that live there somehow finding space for all public and private things we have to do in a group. They get on with humdrum duties, brushing their teeth, waiting in line to use their one bathroom, going to work, not going to work, facing redundancy, shopping, cooking, reading the newspaper, watching television, telling each other anecdotes of the day’s encounters.
The story is a concoction of real-life incidents Kore-eda collected over years. He’s a story-teller par excellence. Based on true news items, Kore-eda’s collection centers around an atypical working class household, an ordinary family, one that’s fallen on hard times.
The father, Osamu (Lily Franky), works as an odd-job labourer, but he and his young son Shota (Kairi Jyo) still have to pilfer groceries from the supermarket to survive. Osamu (Lily Franky), the pater familias, is a master shoplifter now training his teenage son to follow in his footsteps. Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works at a bar is also adept at thieving. Her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), works at a peep show for an online pornography company dressing up as a schoolgirl, short black skirt, white Bobby socks and all. Granny is addicted to pachinko slot machines, eats sloppily, and mourns the proliferation of liver spots spreading over her skin.
Life takes an unexpected turn when they find a young child, Juri (Miyu Sasaki) cold, hungry and miserable, playing alone on a first floor balcony. Thinking her rejected and beaten by her parents – they over-hear violent squabbling from inside the apartment, the child quivering in fear – they take her home. You and I might call that kidnapping. The family call it adoption. Either way it is stealing.
To our surprise, revealed one scene at a time, we see almost every minute of their daily lives and how one interconnects with the other once they’ve taken Juri in as the newest recruit. Gradually, through offhand comments and occasionally surprising actions, the connections between these individuals start to seem a lot less cut and dried.
Are Osamu and Shota, who are well-coordinated shoplifters, actually father and son? The son seems remote from his father, uncertain of him. And is there a darker past between Osamu and Nobuyo, who seem so affectionate and tender toward each other? As the story unfolds we begin asking more questions of what we are witnessing.
Kore-eda eases us into this affectionate environment on the margins of society and then slowly, subtly unpicks every weft and weave of the tapestry he’s taken time to create. He portrays all this in a low-key perambulation, refusing to give us any high drama, or sudden shocks. No one is in despair screaming blue murder.
This is not soap. This is a family finding life is against them, one disaster after another.
Quite frankly, this is so beautifully observed, so universal in its application, I found myself tearful too many times. The cast members never seem to be acting. The youngest children, especially, are quite wonderful. They play as if seasoned movie stars. The last time I saw child actors play so naturalistically was in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
We are privy to the six central characters internal yearnings while together they’re warm and funny, enjoying each others’ company, questioning each other’s day and motivations, separate they’re exhibiting personal doubts and uncertainties.
Lily’s Osamu is the good natured Ando’s Nobuyo is pragmatic. Kiki brings a luminosity to grandma. (The revered actress died soon after the film’s completion.) Matsuoka has an introspective hopefulness, especially when she bonds with a nice-boy client she’s met in the porn rooms who might make a good partner. Both Jyo and Sasaki bring quite breathtaking depth to some the film’s most powerful moments.
Society calls these people criminals. They are not criminal. Again, we call them immoral and anti-social: they lie, cheat, steal and swindle; they inveigle little Juri into their schemes. To my mind, their motivations in welcoming the girl are above reproach. She is an abused child, after all, and they want to make her happy.
This is not Dickens’s Oliver Twist led by Fagin. This is life as most of us have experienced at some time or other and hopefully escaped. Some of us never do.
Kore-eda allows the actors to tease out complex characters with the greatest emotional economy. Sakura Andô is particularly strong as the mother, a hugely funny woman who enjoys a good laugh and giggle, who will work any angle to get by. Scenes shot at a seaside retreat are poignant, a lasting memory for family that is, at base, expressing eternal unhappiness. This is a very humane little masterpiece.
The great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa solved the resistance of the American market to japanese films, in particular his own, by buying a cinema in Downtown Los Angeles. From that moment on his undoubted gifts were recognised in the west.
To our shame Shoplifters is playing in one cinema in Edinburgh in the whole of the UK.
- Star Rating: Five stars
- Cast: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jyo
- Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
- Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
- Cinematographer: Ryûto Kondô
- Composer: Haruomi Hosono
- Duration: 1 hour 42 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?