The 2018 winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes is the gentle, thrilling tale of Tokyo’s down and outs. Kore-eda’s film contrasts the frigidity of socially correct behaviour with the warmth and happiness of the poor.
‘A family of thieves steals the moral high ground – and hearts’ Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Hirokazu Kore-eda | Japan | 2018 | 121 mins | Cert 15
For a nation obsessed with conformity Japan has originated a startling number of classic films concerned with mavericks and outsiders – Seven Samurai (Magnificent Seven), Yojimbo (most of the Clint Eastwood “Man with no Name” movies) Hidden Fortress (Star Wars) – all are concerned with the noble few versus the authority and organization of the many.
Hirokazu Koreeda 56 who wrote and directed “Shoplifters “is one of Japan’s acclaimed new breeds of filmmaker. He has received numerous awards including the Cannes Palme d’Or and an Oscar nomination for this work and has been cited for similar awards for “Like Father like Son” and more recently “After the Storm.” Although he works more in the style of “Ozu” (“Tokyo Story”) he also cites Ken ‘Kes’Loach as a seminal influence and is essentially concerned with the every day as opposed to the epic, however his central theme is still that of the individual or few versus the many.
In “Shoplifters” we are presented not with recalcitrant samurai but with a disaffected group of poor shift workers, tarts, petty thieves and urchin children living as a traditional family in the margins of the modern Tokyo suburbs, calling themselves the Shibatas. The plot of the film appears to have been inspired by Dickens’s “Oliver Twist,” with the central male protagonist Osamu Shibata having much in common with Fagin “I Taught them to steal it’s all I know;” there is a passing resemblance to other characters in that work, most notably Nancy.
These are damaged individuals who make common cause and band together under the flag of family in order to survive the economic privations and rules of the Japanese Corporate state.
The alienating immoral nature of this industrial society is poignantly illustrated by the Shibata’s eldest “daughter” who makes her living in a sex show where dressed in obligatory schoolgirls uniform she pleasures unseen salary men to a rigid script and timetable, the scene is necessarily graphic, but very short, as it is later contrasted with the gentle and human lovemaking of outcasts Mr. and Mrs. Shibata.
Having established this scenario Koreeda powers the narrative drive of the plot with an analysis of each character’s motivation or the loyalty they afford the Shibata family. Is it survival? Is it blood? Is it ruthless control? Is it simply kindness? Every character is interrogated as to what it is that makes a family.
As one character points out “Giving birth does not make you a mother” and yet is it possible to choose your family and still be valid? Maybe motive is irrelevant good people can make bad parents; bad people can make great human beings.
For the most part the film perambulates at a stately pace gradually revealing the Shibata’s surprising, sometimes shocking secrets, like peeling an onion, whilst ratcheting up the tension as their situation becomes increasingly precarious. Nonconformity in Japan can exact a heavy penalty. For all that there is that Japanese resilience of the individual to assure us that all is not lost and the almost overwhelming, cathartic sense that the Shibatas’ earthy humanity is something we all need to reconnect with.
Koreeda’s camera works is intimate, deep focus and usually at eye level except for one marvelous overhead reveal of the Shibata’s low-rise, rickety residence nestled in the uniform concrete poverty of its neighbors, strangely defiant, noble and squalid. The tradition of the few continues.
Weighted vote 81.8%