By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has become a master of creating characters who live on the fringes of society, of bringing forth people whose lives we might pity or despise, yet at the same time treating them with a gentle and understanding touch.
With his latest, “Shoplifters” (Manbiki Kazoku), Kore-eda has cemented his place in the pantheon of Japanese directors, worthy of mention in the same breath as Ozu, Naruse, Itami and Miyazaki. It won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and deserved every bit of it.
In the hands of a less-skilled storyteller, “Shoplifters” could easily have devolved into a tear-jerking melodrama, making easy targets of its characters and their moral shortcomings. Kore-eda instead brings a touching, thoughtful look at the very definition of family, and punctuates it with a ending that is as heart-wrenching as it is satisfying.
Lily Franky stars as Osamu, an apparent day laborer who has taught his boy, Shota (Kairi Jyo) the art of the five-finger discount. With few exceptions, neither seem to take a particular joy in stealing; we learn quite soon that this is no hobby – it’s a means of survival.
Osamu and Shota live in a cramped house filled with several lifetimes-worth of belongs filling every open space. They live with his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando in an Oscar-worthy performance), older daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and grandmother, played by veteran actress Kiki Kilin in the final role before her death.
The boy sleeps in a closet, while Aki shares a bed with Grandma. Osamu and Nobuyo do their best to create a “normal” family environment, but theirs is hardly what most would consider the typically Japanese situation.
Everyone in household is involved in some form of larceny or morally corrupt enterprise. Nobuyo has a steady job at a laundry, but supplements her wages by pilfering valuables from the pockets of customers’ clothes. Aki earns what she can at a sex peep show club, revealing herself and undulating for clients on the other side of a one-way mirror.
Grandma appears to have a legitimate source of income – her pension – but is also sponging off the children of her late ex-husband, who left her decades ago to raise a family with another woman.
On a cold, rainy night, Osamu and Shota come across a young girl (Miyu Sasaki), cowering and crying on a balcony while the abusive sounds of an argument shatter the neighborhood peace. They take her in, if only to get her away from that toxic environment for an evening.
What follows is Kore-eda peeling back layer after layer, almost unnoticed, revealing the true nature of the relationships and their individual values, culminating in a quiet yet powerful ending you’ll never see coming. As media scrutiny and police investigations over the missing girl intensify, the family bond grows ever stronger, almost as if immune from the norms and conventions of the society around them.
Very much in the vein of his earlier films “Like Father, Like Son,” “Air Doll” and “Nobody’s Home,” Kore-eda draws us into the humanity of the people in his story, not focusing on any judgment of their lives on the margins. It brings rarely considered variations on coming-of-age, marital bonds and what is moral or immoral.
Kore-eda explained that he first began formulating the story after reading news stories of families in Japan illegally collecting the pensions of deceased parents.
“The first thing that came to my mind was the tagline ‘Only the crimes tied us together.’ In Japan, crimes like pension frauds and parents making their children shoplift are criticized severely,” he has said, insisting that compared to more serious crimes, these infractions are minor.
The director said he wanted to show a more understanding portrayal, rather than the kind of unfortunate souls narrative so often splashed across the news in lurid stories.
“It wasn’t my intention simply to describe a poor family, or the lower levels of the social strata,” he explained. “I rather think that the family in the film ended up gathering in that house not to collapse there. I wanted to shine a light on such a family from a different angle.
Ando delivers one of the most tearfully honest performances in decades, as Nobuyo is being questioned by the police over the situation of the child they have taken in. A slowly advancing close-up, dimly lit without music finds her coming to grips with reality, yet all the while, feeling she made the right choice. It’s a powerful punch that speaks volumes about the film, as it straddles the front between what can be understood and what can be forgiven.
“I found her,” Nobuyo says of the girl. “It was someone else who threw her away.”
“Shoplifters is a beautifully executed examination of what family really means. And before you realize it, it has stolen your heart.
“Shoplifters” continues this weekend at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A. and the Arclight Hollywood. Opens Friday at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and Town Center 5 in Encino. Opens Dec. 14 at the Claremont 5 in Claremont and Dec. 21 at Laemmle’s Glendale. Not rated. 121 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles.