Fresh from winning the Palme D’or at Cannes, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Manbiki kazoku (or ‘Shoplifters’) arrived at Brighton’s CINECITY Film Festival with a delicately assembled tale of a ‘family’ that exists on the fringes of Tokyo.
The use of apostrophes in describing the film’s subjects requires an explanation that would perhaps ruin the final act; but let it be said that this is a family related through unconventional means. Two of the five family members that we begin with are Dad, ‘Osamu’, played by the impeccable Lily Franky, and son ‘Shota’ (Jyo Kairi). Together, with guile and expertise, they rob convenience stores to keep their heads above water. On their way back from one such trip however, five becomes six as they stumble across a girl who’s been a left out in the cold by her abusive parents.Despite the fact that her parents do not even register her as missing, ‘Yuri’s’ (Miyu Sasaki’s) disappearance becomes a national scandal, rumbling on in the background. In the background though, is where the moral implications of this family’s actions stay, for Koreeda’s cinema is one of pure humanism, bound up in the people that occupy his frame.
The intricacies of familial bonds is something that manifests in all of Koreeda’s work, but surely never to the degree in which it is deconstructed here in Shoplifters. A large portion of the film is spent watching the seemingly insignificant interactions between the ‘Shibata’s’; we hear them all loudly slurp their food, see them bathe and dress, and watch Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) fondle with Aki’s (Mayu Matsuoka) hair. For many directors these sorts of moments would function as building blocks for the narrative ark, but for Koreeda this simply is his narrative. Ryûto Kondô’s understated but rich cinematography works in concert with the brilliantly nuanced performances to find beauty in every frame. Rather than serve to heighten another moment, in retrospect, every progression of the plot imbues further meaning into these earlier moments. When death comes, both literally, and metaphorically with the separation of the family nucleus, the formerly insignificant becomes heartbreakingly significant.
The ways in which this family first formed is never quite made clear, but their legitimacy is self-evident through the time we spend with them. Nobuyo’s poignant question, “does giving birth automatically make you a Mother?”, captures the central thesis of the film, but there is a much wider scope of interest that Koreeda is typically subtle in addressing. One in six children in Japan live in poverty; a stat that seems to line the mise-en-scène in every shot. Despite Osamu, Nobuyo, and Aki all having part-time jobs, they still need to fraudulently live off the pension of their deceased grand-father and shoplift just to get by. So, whilst the family’s actions are very clearly depicted as being un-lawful, they are also equally clear as being the product of poverty. Here Koreeda paints a very different image of Japan to the highly advanced and fashionable one that international audiences are fed. Sometimes filmmakers are given the tag-line of being “political” in their work, but this carries all sorts of connotations, and frankly it’s a term doesn’t really mean much anymore. Better put, Koreeda is so unerring in his realism that any structural shortcomings a community may have will always bleed to the surface, such is the extent of his authenticity.
Shoplifters is an incredibly moving and thoughtful film that deserves all the praise it is receiving. Cate Blanchett (this year’s jury president at Cannes) noted “how intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision” when awarding it the Palme D’or. “Intermeshed” is a nice way of phrasing how complete Koreeda’s filmmaking feels; there is an underlying presence in every moment that is comfortable in the intimacy of its characters, no desire to cutaway, or undercut, but just content to observe and revel in the under-appreciated details that make life what it is.