Shoplifters (万引き家族, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2018)

Shoplifters poster 2Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The family drama is the mainstay of Japanese cinema, though to be fair it rarely features families which are noticeably “unhappy” so much as struggling under the weight of social expectations. Nevertheless, since consumerism arrived in force, the concept of “the family” has come in for regular interrogation. That at the centre of Shoplifters (万引き家族, Manbiki Kazoku), Hirokazu Koreeda’s return to the genre with which he is most closely associated, are on one level among the happiest of families ever captured on film, but then again they are not quite like all the others.

The Shibatas live in a small Japanese-style house owned by “grandma” Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) whose pension (or, to be more precise, that of her late husband) makes up a significant portion of the family income. Patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has a casual job as a day labourer while his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in a laundry. Her “sister” Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) tells people she works as a kind of hostess but actually dresses up as a schoolgirl and performs sex services behind a two-way mirror in a sleazy club. Meanwhile, Osamu and Nobuyo’s “son”, Shota (Jyo Kairi), alternates his time between homeschooling himself and helping out with the family’s only other source of income – thievery. It’s after one partially successful foray to the local supermarket that Osamu and Shota come across a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), stuck out on a balcony alone in the freezing cold and decide to take her home for something warm to eat.

Of course, this family itself is the very definition of makeshift. Osamu and Nobuyo may be a “real” couple, but no one else is actually related. The Family Game may have attempted to take the family apart and expose it as an artificial mechanism devoid of real feeling in which each is simply playing the role expected of them, but Shoplifters asks the opposite – if a found family can actually be more “real” that the real thing because it has been chosen, is wanted, and continues to function because of an organic bond between individuals which exists in the absence of blood.

In a sense, the family itself has been “shoplifted”. Later, under questioning, Nobuyo is accused of “throwing away” Hatsue but she corrects them – she didn’t and she wouldn’t. Someone else “threw away” Hatsue and she found her. Hatsue was abandoned by her husband who fathered a family with another woman, but seemingly not with her. Alone she longed for a family of her own and most of all to avoid the looming threat of a “lonely death”. Whatever else they might have gained from the “arrangement”, Osamu and Nobuyo are at least able to offer her the thing that would make her life complete as she prepares to meet its end. By the logic of the family drama, one family must be broken in order to forge another and it’s true enough to say that each member of the Shibata clan has been pilfered from somewhere else but in the end perhaps it’s better this way, free of the cold obligation of a blood or legal tie.

Then again, there are cracks in the foundation. Little Shota, growing fast into a young man, is increasingly conflicted about the way the family makes ends meet. Trapped in low paid, casual employment, Osamu and Nobuyo are working but poor, unable to support their family on their wages alone. Injured at work, Osamu is left without compensation because he’s only a day labourer and therefore not entitled to workplace protections while Nobuyo is eventually forced into a “workshare” arrangement and then to resign when her boss cruelly tells her and a friend that they can decide between themselves which of them gets to keep their job. They steal because they’re hungry, but also perhaps because they enjoy this small way of rebelling against the system. Osamu tells Shota that stealing from stores is OK because no one really “owns” anything while it’s still on the shelf, but Shota begins to doubt his logic. It’s not just “taking”, it’s taking “from” and Shota is increasingly worried about who it is their way of life may be harming. He worries that in taking in Yuri the family is corrupting her, indoctrinating her into their morally dubious universe.

Morally dubious it may be, but life with the Shibatas is warm and safe which is a lot more than can be said for Yuri’s life with her birth parents who don’t even bother to report her missing – social services eventually figure out she isn’t around two months later and come to the conclusion that the parents may have got rid of her in some unspecified way. Which sort of “corruption” is worse – an upbringing filled with abuse and neglect, or one filled with love and habitual criminality? Yet it’s an act of love that finally breaks the family apart and leaves them at the mercy of cold and official forces too obsessed with their own sense of narrative to bother listening to the “truth”. Shoplifters wants to ask if the “natural” laws of society still serve us when little girls fall through the cracks and our definition of “family” is so narrow and rigid that it denies us a way of saving them. Sometimes the found family is stronger than the inherited one, but society is primed to crush it all the same in its relentless and indifferent quest to preserve the social order.


Shoplifters opens in UK cinemas on 23rd November courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa, Yusuke Kinoshita, Megumi Tsuno, Akiyo Fujimura, Kei Ishikawa, 2018)

Ten Years Japan posterBack in 2015, five aspiring Hong Kong filmmakers came together to present a collection of shorts speculating on the fate of their nation in 10 years’ time. Coinciding with if not directly inspired by the Umbrella Movement, Ten Years was a deliberately political project which tapped into the nation’s unique preoccupations almost 20 years on from the end of British rule and a little more than 30 before One Country, Two Systems expires. The film proved an unexpected box office hit and has gone on to become an unconventional franchise with a host of other Asian nations creating their own omnibus movies musing on what may or may not have occurred in a decade’s time.

Unlike the original Hong Kong edition, Japan’s vision (十年 Ten Years Japan) is decidedly less political, perhaps reflecting a greater level of stability. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there are a number of recurrent themes running through each of the segments from the ageing population to the increasing power of the state and the dark possibilities of technology.

In Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, the first and darkest of the shorts, a conflicted salaryman (Satoru Kawaguchi) makes his living selling the titular “retirement” plans to those who have reached the age of 75 and decided enough is enough. Japan’s population is ageing faster than any other and caring for the elderly has placed a significant strain on the young. The old and infirm are therefore encouraged to think of themselves as burdensome, that they should do the decent thing and relieve the pressure on their loved ones by going gracefully at the right time. So far so Ballad of Narayama, but age isn’t quite the issue – the rich are excluded because they’re still spending their money and therefore economically useful. The government would rather roll out the invitations to the “unproductive”.

Ironically enough, a little girl who wants to be a vet in Yusuke Kinoshita’s Mischievous Alliance is advised to become a doctor instead and specialise in elder care which is in fact a growth industry. Unlike the elderly in Plan 75, the kids of Mischievous Alliance are not quite so willing to sit back and conform despite being fitted with invasive headsets connected to a monitoring program which “corrects” their bad behaviour whenever they try to break the rules. The hero rejects his oppressive schooling by self identifying with a stabled horse previously used for medical experimentation, longing to run free if only for a few moments.

If the “promise” system at the centre of Mischievous Alliance presented a vision of a future in which privacy and individual agency have all but disappeared, Data asks us if we have the right to reconstruct someone’s identity after they’ve gone by examining their digital footprint. A high school girl (Hana Sugisaki) tries to adjust to the idea of her widowed father’s (Tetsushi Tanaka) new girlfriend by opening up her mother’s “digital inheritance” but learns more than her mother might have wanted her to know. High school videos and pictures of old boyfriends jostle with beautiful flowers and private anxieties, but when it comes right down to it the organic memories are the only ones that count and the only things to make sense of the cluttered imagery in an uncurated personal museum of random digital moments.

Youth’s desire for knowledge and freedom is also at the heart of Akiyo Fujimura’s The Air We Can’t See which is the only one of the shorts to address nuclear anxiety in the post-Fukushima world. After some kind of event has made the surface uninhabitable, humanity has survived underground. A curious little girl, however, is fascinated by the idea of the outside. Longing to hear the birds and feel the rain, she imagines herself an exterior world but also comes to wonder if her home is a kind of prison born of fear and maybe it’s all alright up top if only you have the courage to look.

Meanwhile the apocalypse is still a little way off in Kei Ishikawa’s For Our Beautiful Country which hints obliquely at the growing threat of North Korea as missiles fly overhead with increasing frequency. The references, however, are older. A cynical ad man (Taiga) oversees a campaign promoting Japan’s remilitarisation but is later charged with letting the elderly, eccentric graphic designer (Hana Kino) know her poster is being “substituted” with something more “powerful”. After spending the day with her and coming to understand the subtle act of rebellion which has made her poster unusable for its propaganda purposes, the ad man gets a new a mission. It’s all up to the young now who have both an opportunity and a duty to ensure their country does not fall into the same kind of ugliness that sent young men off to die in the name of beauty.

Bookending the piece, Hayakawa and Ishikawa present the bleakest visions in which the descent into cruel authoritarianism may have already passed the point of no return. The children, however, seem to disagree and universally turn away from oppressive social codes, preferring to find their own truths and committed to exploring their own freedoms. Ten Years Japan may shed the overtly political overtones of its Hong Kong inspiration but finds brief rays of hope in the midst of despair in a child’s ability to break the programming and strive for a better, fairer world free of adult duplicity.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rage (怒り, Lee Sang-il, 2016)

rage posterVillain, Lee Sang-il’s 2011 adaptation of a novel by Shuichi Yoshida, used a crime story to investigate the wider effects of social stigma and emotional repression – themes which are recurrent in the author’s work. Rage (怒り, Ikari) attempts to do something similar but its aims are larger, reflexively tacking the vicious cycle of social oppression and emotional repression in a society which actively suppresses the desire for expression in the aim of maintaining an illusion of harmony. A brutal, senseless killing has occurred and three suspects present themselves. The killer could be any one or none of them, but the fact of the matter is that when you cannot speak the truth, you cannot truly believe in anything or anyone.

In the blazing summer heat with its noisy cicadas and uncomfortable humidity, a young couple has been brutally murdered in their Hachioji home. There are few clues to be found save that the killer has painted the kanji for “rage” in blood on the wall. The police do, however, come up with a suspect and circulate a photofit which is anonymous enough to look like any youngish man who might make you feel uncomfortable for a reason you can’t articulate.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged man from Chiba, Maki (Ken Watanabe), anxiously wanders around Kabukicho until someone finds him and takes him to a brothel where his runaway daughter, Aiko (Aoi Miyazaki), has been working and has been very badly injured through her “eagerness to please her clients”. The father, trying to comfort his daughter who seems cheerful enough despite her ordeal, inwardly seethes with rage and is both relieved and worried when she begins a relationship with a secretive drifter, Tashiro (Kenichi Matsuyama).

Back in Tokyo, Yuma (Satoshi Tsumabuki) visits a gay bathhouse and roughly forces himself on a nervous man hunched in a corner. Despite the slight unpleasantness of their meeting, the two men eat dinner together and Yuma invites his new friend, Naoto (Go Ayano), to live with him in his well appointed apartment despite knowing nothing more about him.

Further south, a teenage couple enjoy a day out on what they think is a deserted island but the girl, Izumi (Suzu Hirose), discovers a backpacker, Tanaka (Mirai Moriyama),  living in some local ruins. Strangely drawn to him, Izumi keeps meeting up with Tanaka but an encounter in the city turns sour when her friend, Tatsuya (Takara Sakumoto), works himself into a jealous rage. Trying to get the drunken Tatsuya to the ferry, Izumi is raped by GIs from the local military base.

The Okinawan episode is, in many ways the key. Tetsuya invites Izumi to see a movie in Naha but they’re really going to observe a protest about the continued presence of the US military bases. Tatsuya wanted to be there to see it but pressed for an answer he doubts protest will achieve anything. Izumi, after her brutal encounter, says the same thing. She doesn’t want anyone to know. “Protesting won’t change anything”. No matter what she says, nothing will be done, no one would listen, nobody really cares.

Or, perhaps they simply care about the wrong things. Aiko gets home from her horrible ordeal in the city but everyone knows what she did there; her “sordid” past is the talk of the town. Her father says nothing, because like Izumi he knows it will do no good, but still he berates himself for it and his internalised anger grows.

Izumi does not want the stigma of being a rape victim, and Aiko does not want the stigma of being a “fallen woman”, their secrets are already out, but Yuma is jealously guarding his – living as a cautious gay man with his life strictly divided, his true nature walled off from his professional persona. Too afraid to be open about his sexuality, he projects his sense of unease and discomfort onto Naoto – first going overboard by inviting someone he just met and knows nothing about to live with him and then refusing to let him in all the way. Yuma asks Naoto not to attend his mother’s funeral despite the fact they had been friends because he doesn’t want the awkwardness of deciding how to introduce his boyfriend to a set of relatives he doesn’t really know. What he doesn’t do is ask any questions about Naoto’s past, jumping to conclusions and angrily slinging accusations when he thinks he’s caught Naoto out in a lie but his reaction and subsequent behaviour only bear out his own insecurities in his inability to trust the man the loves.

Each of the trio begins to doubt their friends or lovers with little more to go on than a police photofit which only superficially resembles them. The suspicion, however, is reflexive. It’s born of a society in which one is obliged to keep secrets and emotional honesty is frowned upon. No one speaks the truth because no one wants to hear it – it will only bring more suffering with additional social stigma. Sooner or later, when all of these unexpressed emotions reach a critical mass, they will explode. Such crimes could so easily be avoided were it easier to live a more open, less fearful life, but as long as it is impossible to trust oneself, there can be no unguarded trust between people.

Neatly in line with the self-centred narrative viewpoints, Izumi’s rape is relegated to a plot device as she herself disappears from the screen only to return briefly in the final coda. The effects of the rape are then explored as they impact on Tetsuya and Tanaka whose self images of masculinity are (seemingly) damaged by their failures to protect her. Izumi’s rape is viewed as something that happened to the men, as if she were a car that was scratched or a jacket torn. Self-involved as this is, it plays into the central theme – no one cares very much about anybody else’s feelings until those feelings are visited upon them by means of violence.

The murder occurs essentially because of a betrayal followed by unbearable, unexpected kindness. A woman felt sorry for a man, and so she trusted him and was betrayed. Two parties fail to trust the one they love because of a failing in themselves, their own sense of personal inadequacy will not allow them to believe in the other person’s faith in them, while another misplaces his trust in his need to find an ally and confidant to feel less alone and powerless. Prevailing social stigmas, selfishness, and a need to maintain the status quo have left all running scared, craving connection but too afraid to engage. When the system won’t let you be, violence, of one sort or another, is an inevitable consequence.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Being Good (きみはいい子, Mipo O, 2015)

Being Goog J poster“Being good”. What does that mean? Is it as simple as “not being bad” (whatever that means) or perhaps it’s just abiding by the moral conventions of your society though those may be, no – are, questionable ideas in themselves. Mipo O follows up her hard hitting modern romance The Light Shines Only There by attempting to answer this question through looking at the stories of three ordinary people whose lives are touched by human cruelty.

The film begins with newbie teacher Okano (Kengo Kora) who is still trying to adjust to the extremely stressful life of a primary school teacher in charge of 38 little guys and girls. As he’s young and he’s only just started he’s filled with enthusiasm and is intent on doing his best to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s a young man with a private life of his own to think about and sometimes he’s just too tired to want to be bothered with a bunch of kids intentionally trying to push his buttons. When he notices one of the pupils hanging around the schoolyard everyday long after he should have gone home, he begins to worry about the boy’s life outside of school.

Strand two also features the life of an abused child as stressed out mother Masami (Machiko Ono) struggles to cope with her three year old daughter Ayane while her husband is frequently abroad on business. Having been an abused child herself, Masami enters a vicious cycle of hating herself for treating her daughter the way she does and resenting Ayane even more for making her feel this way. After becoming friends with a cheerful woman who seems completely at ease with her two rowdy kids, there may be a better way out on offer for Masami and Ayane.

The third tale is a little different than the other two as it encompasses themes of lonely older people in Japan’s rapidly ageing society and the position of those who are different from the norm. Akiko lost her entire family during the war and never had children of her own so she’s all alone now. Every evening while she’s sweeping the steps a young boy says “hello, goodbye” to her as he walks past. One day the boy is in a terrible panic because he’s somehow lost his house key but Akiko calms him down and takes him inside until his mother can come and fetch him.

Okano is full of good intentions. He wants to think himself a “good” person and genuinely wants to look after the young lives placed in his care. However, he is still young, inexperienced and a little bit vain so that the slightest bit of criticism niggles at him. Simply put, he just doesn’t really know what to do and several of his ideas backfire quite spectacularly or appear extremely ill-conceived. Some of this is still about him and his own idea of his being a “good person” rather than an altruistic desire to help the children under his care.

The same, however, cannot be said of the elderly lady who still takes such delight in the falling cherry blossoms which waft down from the school to her small suburban house. Akiko might be lonely, but there’s nothing selfish in the warmth she extends to others. When Hyato’s mother, Kazumi, arrives to fetch him, she’s immediately mortified, convinced that her son must have caused immense levels of trouble for this little old lady. Akiko claims not even to have noticed Hyato’s differences but remarks on how polite he is greeting her every evening and that he’s been the perfect houseguest – in fact she was enjoying herself so much she’s a little sorry Kazumi has turned up so quickly. Kazumi is completely overwhelmed by Akiko’s kindness – it’s the first time she’s ever heard anyone say something nice about her son rather than having people criticise him for being different. In fact, sometimes even she begins to forget how “good” he can be.

In the case of Masami and her daughter Ayane, it’s not that Masami is “bad” person but is responding to a cycle of violence that she finds impossible to escape. Masami doesn’t cope well with stressful situations, dislikes noise and disorder and has impossibly high (and arbitrary) standards for her daughter which result in “discipline” through physical violence. Nevertheless, Ayane loves her mother and, even if Masami recoils when Ayane tries to hug her, reacts with horror to cheerful friend Yoko’s joke of adopting her into their family. Ayane wants to be like her mum, taking delight in wearing a matching pair of shoes even if that means she can’t play with the other kids. As Masami was abused, so she abuses – will the cycle continue with Ayane? Luckily, the pair may have found a more gentle solution in the form of the kindly Yoko who proves far wiser than one would suspect.

As Okano’s sister tells him, when you’re nice to children, they’re nice to others. If everyone could be nicer to their children perhaps we could have a nicer world. The young boy whom Okano is trying to save has come to believe that he’s a “bad kid” – proven by the fact that Santa never comes to their house. He can’t bring himself to talk about his step father to his teachers and Okano’s interventions only make things worse for the boy. He needs someone to show him that he’s not at fault and that the world is not a bad place but it will take more than just “good will” to solve the problem. Sometimes, all you can do is knock on the door.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

This is the original trailer for the film but in my opinion it contains a few spoilers so bear that in mind if you plan on watching in the near future:

Princess Jellyfish (海月姫, Taisuke Kawamura, 2014)

b7dec6a631e5ad87baf2ff601d6b4872Originating as an ongoing manga series by Akiko Higashimura which was also later adapted into a popular TV anime, Princess Jellyfish adopts a slightly unusual focus as it homes in on the sometimes underrepresented female otaku.

Tsukimi is an extremely awkward young woman who has an all encompassing obsession with jellyfish. Luckily for her, she’s managed to find a group of likeminded women of a similar age to room with. That is, they aren’t all as crazy about jellyfish as she is, but they all have their particular order of special interest, are fairly socially awkward with an extreme fear of “fashionable” women, and no formal form of employment. At the Amamizukan boarding house, the girls can all enjoy their otaku lives together (well, kind of separately) and, crucially there are no boys allowed!

However, one day Tsukimi finds herself at a crisis point when she notices one of the jellyfish she likes to visit at a nearby pet shop is in danger! The idiot shop boy has only gone and put a Moon Jelly in with a Spotted Jelly – does he just not know how dangerous that is?! Tsukimi will need to act fast to save her friend, but the guy behind the counter is a clueless pretty boy – absolutely the worst case scenario for Tsukimi. Despite her extreme anxiety she valiantly marches into the shop yet her confused mini lecture on jellyfish keeping only succeeds in convincing the shop boy that she’s some kind of nutcase. On being expelled from the shop, Tsukimi finds herself at the feet of an extremely glamorous looking woman who comes to her defence. What kind of strange parallel world is this? Tsukimi’s universe is about to undergo a sea change!

Though based on a manga and intended as a comedy, crucially, Princess Jellyfish casts its series of “different” heroines (and hero) in a favourable light – they are never the butt of the joke and sympathy is always placed with those who experience difficulty in their lives because they feel themselves to be different. Each of the girls is so deeply involved in their own particular obsession that they find it difficult to fit into the regular world and particularly to cope with conventional femininity. Tsukimi herself finds it particularly difficult to talk to men and the fact that no men are permitted at Amamizukan makes it clear that she is not alone in her fears.

This brings us to her new friend who is apparently a fashionable young woman – the sort who would never usually be seen dead talking to the likes of Tsukimi. However, this one not only acknowledges Tsukimi’s presence as another human of equal standing, but even lends her confidence and power as an attractive woman to Tsukimi’s predicament. There is, of course, more to this mysterious saviour than there might seem at first sight. In addition to being a fabulously well dressed lady, Kuronosuke is also a boy. This is something of a problem for Tsukimi as she only realises after letting him stay over at the strictly no boys allowed residence. The ruse also has to be maintained a little longer when Kuronosuke decides to stick around, eventually becoming known as “Kuroko”.

The situation intensifies as the girls’ secret haven comes under threat when a gang of ruthless developers want to buy up most of the town and redevelop the area. The group home is owned by one of the girl’s mothers who is also an otaku only her obsession is with top Korean actor Lee Byung-hun and she’s skipped off to Korea to be able to stalk him better. There’s no telling what she might do if it brings her closer to the object of her affections and things are looking a little desperate. Eventually a possible solution is found which plays to everyone’s strengths and offers the faintest glimmers of hope for the girls (and boy!) of Amamizukan.

Princess Jellyfish is the ultimate tale of acceptance, both in personal and societal terms. The residents of Amamizukan may be a little different, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer the world and there’s no need for themselves to maintain a position of self imposed exile if the only reason is a belief in their own inferiority. This is a lesson taught to them by the exuberant rich boy and politician’s son with a traumatic past of his own, Kuronosuke. Truly unafraid to be who he is, Kuronosuke teaches the girl’s that almost any obstacle can be overcome with a combination of forthrightness and sincerity.

Though it runs a little long and gives in to some very over the top performances and melodramatic plotting, Princess Jellyfish is an enjoyably offbeat manga inspired tale. Very much not interested in demonising anyone other than those who seek to suppress individuality, it’s a cheerful celebration of the value to be found in difference offering plenty of laughter and warmth along the way. Perhaps not for those who prefer their cinematic experiences on the subtle side, Princess Jellyfish is nevertheless a fun filled film which carries its message of universal acceptance right into the closing credits.


The anime adaptation of this is actually really fun too.