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)

The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2017)

Third Murder posterJapanese cinema has often put the justice and legal system on trial and found it wanting. From Yoji Yamada’s Flag in the Mist in which a “selfish” lawyer contributes to the death of an innocent man, to Yoshitaro Nomura’s spiralling, feverish The Incident, Yoshimitsu Morita’s Kafka-esque Keiho, Gen Takahashi’s pointed Court of Zeus, and Masayuki Suo’s comparatively more straightforward I Just Didn’t Do It, the entire justice system takes on an almost spiritual quality of absurdity, tormenting the accused for the sake of a pantomime of justice, little caring for his or her guilt or innocence and intent only on propping up its own sense of absolute authority.

Like Yoji Yamada in Flag in the Mist, The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Sandome no Satsujin) finds director Hirokazu Koreeda in unfamiliar territory though, at heart, it all comes back to family. A top lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), currently in the middle of a divorce, is asked to represent a man who has freely confessed to murder. As the son of the original judge who sentenced the accused, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), to the 30 year sentence he had not long been released from before (allegedly) committing the crime, Shigemori feels a responsibility to act but is frustrated by his client’s constantly shifting story. Nothing he says adds up, and every new angle Shigemori uncovers provokes only more doubt as to the true nature of the case at hand.

Shigemori, somewhat condescendingly, criticises the junior lawyer in the office for his naivety in wanting to to investigate the crime. Understanding and empathy are “unnecessary” in defending a client. The business of a lawyer, on either side, is to assess the evidence at hand, create an argument that withstands scrutiny, and eventually triumph in debating one’s opponent. In the face of the law, the “truth” is an irrelevance.

Shigemori’s cynicism is however rocked by the eerie presence of Misumi who seems to carry with him a kind of deepening emptiness. Misumi has already served 30 years in prison for the murder of two loansharks, the theft of their money, and an act of arson committed on their property to disguise the crime. Shigemori’s father, now a much older man, laments his youthful naivety in handing down a compassionate judgement which took into account the mitigating circumstances – Misumi’s troubled childhood, his poverty, the dire economic situation in which the closure of the local mines had led to mass unemployment and provided fertile ground for unscrupulous money lenders, and a series of personal tragedies which may have unbalanced his mind, but now he thinks some people are just bad and Misumi’s third murder is, in a sense, also his responsibility in allowing him the freedom to commit it.

Yet, there is also a doubt that Misumi’s first crimes are even his. We are told that, like the current case, Misumi couldn’t stick to one story – a common phenomenon with those who confess under duress, saying yes to everything in order to make the questioning stop but later forgetting what exactly they confessed to. Misumi later says he confessed only because he was told that confessing was the only way to avoid the death penalty which, ironically enough, is what he now faces. He also claims he was intimidated by the (admittedly stern) prosecutors, and when it looks as if a new trial may be necessary, the judge opts for the most “judicially economical” solution to incorporate the new demands into the current trial for reasons which the lawyers attribute to his personal need to get the case off his docket in good time so as not to muddy his own reputation. Japan’s 99% conviction rate is less an endorsement of judicial efficiency than a worrying indictment of the legal process in which trials are mere formalities held for show, a pantomime intended to reinforce an idea of “justice” which does not quite exist.

The weight of justice itself is called into question. We learn that the victim was guilty of several crimes, some of them more forgivable than others. Yet is his death “justice” or “murder”, was he “killed” or was the act one of “salvation” for his victims? There are no easy answers and the uncomfortable fact remains that one kind of justice may not necessarily be any different from another. Misumi remains a cypher, his motives for committing the crime(s) (if he even did commit them at all) unclear yet there is also something in him that suggests he is merely a reflection of ourselves, a projection of our own primal need to see justice done that our civil selves have tried and failed to codify into a universally recognised system of fairness known as law. Then again perhaps all we really want is a story we can understand and empathise with, perhaps we don’t want justice at all – we want narrative, a strategy for defence against the cruel and arbitrary charges of an unforgiving world. Shigemori stands at a crossroads, cleansed of his cynicism but unsure what to replace it with, as, perhaps, as we.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Academy.

International trailer (English subtitles)

After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2016)

after-the-stormIt’s never too late to be what you might have been – a statement attributed to George Eliot which may be as fake as one of the promises offered by the protagonist of Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest attempt to chart the course of his nation through its basic social unit, After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku). Reuniting Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe as mother and son following their star turns in Still Walking, After the Storm is, in many ways, a story of decline and lost potential though it leaves room for a new beginning if only the past can finally be left behind.

Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a one time prize winning novelist now working at a sleazy detective agency. He’s also a divorced father and well meaning deadbeat dad who never pays his child support but turns up every Sunday to hang out with his 11 year old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), much to the consternation of his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki). Ryota hasn’t quite accepted that the marriage is over and has been using his detective skills to spy on Kyoko, discovering that she has a new man in her life who’s the exact opposite of him – successful, wealthy, and part of the elegant set.

Like father, like son (to echo another of Koreeda’s films), Ryota has inherited some of his worst qualities from his recently deceased dad. When we first meet him, Ryota has surreptitiously returned to his childhood home and let himself in with the spare key only to start rifling through draws, pocketing old lottery tickets and appraising the value of every object in sight. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), is actually a little bit relieved at her husband’s passing as she’s finally free of his unpleasant behaviour. Remembered as a liar and a cheat, an untrustworthy man whom everyone avoided, Ryota’s father is not the best role model leaving both of his children determined not to follow in his footsteps. This is Ryota’s first failure, and the one he’s most reluctant to acknowledge.

Desperately wanting to reclaim his place within his own family, Ryota goes to great lengths to get the money for his child support payments, somehow still hoping to be forgiven. Ryota’s eyes are always on the prize, but always on the unattainable rather than the real possibilities right in front of him. After double dealing on his clients by effectively blackmailing them, not to mention pressuring his colleague to lend him money, Ryota fritters it away on gambling trying to win it all, rather than settling for making the best of what he has. His quick fix approach to life has already cost him his wife’s faith as she is far less obliged to put up with the kind of nonsense Yoshiko was expected to grin and bear.

Yet Ryota seems to have the desire to be better, only lacking the faith to accept the possibility. When Ryota tries to blackmail a high school boy over an affair with a teacher, the boy declares that he’ll never grow up to be the kind of man Ryota is. Ryota, wounded, replies that it isn’t easy to grow up and be the man you wanted to be. As a child, Ryota wanted to be a civil servant because it was the exact opposite of his father, but he’s ended up becoming his father anyway. Shingo also claims to want to be a civil servant rather than something flashier like a professional baseball player but perhaps his desires are born more out of a sense of self realisation than an active opposition. When someone later asks Ryota if he’s the man he always wanted to be, he truthfully replies that he isn’t, but he’s working on it.

Events come to a head when Kyoko, Shingo, and Ryota end up staying over at Yoshiko’s apartment because of the oncoming typhoon. Played out with a quiet kind of restraint, old grievances are aired, understandings are reached, and each arrives at the next morning with a new sense of clarity.  After the storm has broken, there’s nothing left to do but assess the damage and then begin trying to rebuild as best you can.

Ryota’s epiphany comes to him as he’s wearing his father’s shirt and about to sign his own name with his father’s prized brush and ink stone. There’s something to be said for owning yourself, even if you can’t exactly be proud of it. Yoshiko asks why men can’t learn to love the present – if all you ever do is obsess over what you’ve lost or what you could gain, life will pass you by. Ryota may not have changed very much after coming through the storm, but he’s working on it. Who knows, he might even mean it, this time.


Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The original Japanese title for the film, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, is taken from the lyrics to the Teresa Teng song Wakare no Yokan.

Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

still walkingLife is full of choices, but the one thing you can’t choose is your family. Like it or not you’re stuck with them for life and even if you decide you want nothing to do with them ever again, they’ll still be hanging round in the back of your mind for evermore. Koreeda swings the camera back around the fulcrum of Japanese society for this dissection of the fault lines and earthquake zones rubbing up against this very ordinary family.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that some kind of celebration is about to take place at the beginning of Still Walking (歩いても歩いても, Aruitemo Aruitemo) yet the event that is about to bring scattered friends and family members back home is of a more somber nature. As the matriarch Toshiko (Kirin Kiki) peels vegetables with her daughter Chinami (YOU) she seems excited at the prospect of getting the family back together again yet melancholic and perhaps a little nervous.

Younger son Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is taking the train in with his new wife and stepson. He urges Yukari (Yui Natsukawa) that they should make their excuses and leave in time for the last train but she feels obliged to stay over. It’s clear Ryota is not looking forward to a reunion with his family and also has some current worries over his working situation which are weighing on his mind and which he definitely does not want anyone in the family to find out about.

Ryota has a particularly strained relationship with his difficult doctor father, Kyohei (Yoshio Harada) who doted on his oldest son, Junpei, drowned at sea whilst saving the life of a little boy. Increasingly grumpy that he has no heir for his medical practice, Kyohei refuses to recognise Ryota as a grown man or accept his work as an art restorer as a “real” occupation. Tensions in the family are further brought out by the mild disapproval over Ryota’s choice of wife who was previously married and then widowed and has a young son by her first husband. Toshiko for one still harbours an old fashioned stigma towards second marriages and thinks Ryota could have done better than “buying second hand”. Though seemingly accepting of her new daughter-in-law and grandson, she perhaps treats them a little more like guests than fully fledged members of the family.

Set over the course of two days, Still Walking takes on a sense of Chekovian wit and melancholy as it paints a naturalistic picture of an ordinary family with all of the petty cruelties and indignation that involves. The deceased son, Junpei, has become a virtual saint, forever bathed in golden light by his grieving parents while Ryota remains very much alive yet pushed into the shadows. Feeling himself to raise only feelings of disappointment in his family, he adopts a truculent, defensive air which sees him unwilling to engage leaving the bulk of the work for his new wife who is eager to please her in-laws despite their frequent tactlessness in dealing with herself and her son.

Of course, Ryota and his father aren’t so different at all – both gruff, defensive, grumpy. Kyohei is a difficult man sinking into a miserable old age where he can no longer busy himself with the role which has given his life meaning, that of a respected small town doctor. When bubbly younger sister Chinami mentions having seen a newspaper report which referred to painting restorers as “art doctors”, neither man is very happy with being linked with the other yet there is a certain commonality between them that oddly forces them apart rather than ties them together.

Toshiko by contrast is the long suffering yet largely silent housewife whose maternal grief is the force which now defines her. Seemingly sweet and kind on the outside, there’s a tough core in the middle which gives way to some decidedly biting remarks lightly peppering the atmosphere with ancient resentments. Perhaps feeling a strange sort of kinship with the mystery guest-cum-kicking-boy-of-the-day – Yoshio, the boy who Junpei saved but has not made good on his investment as he’s turned into a slobbish and overweight 25 year old child who can’t seem to settle on one proper career, Ryota asks why his mother insists on inviting him every year knowing how painful it must be for him to come. Toshiko coldly replies that that’s exactly the reason she intends to keep making him visit, she feels wretched inside 24/7 so for one day every year she makes someone else feel dreadful too – will anyone blame her for that?

Grief and loss play a heavy part here, not only of the literal kind, but in the feeling of time wasted and the disappearing moments which can never be recaptured. Chinami’s son and daughter team up with Ryota’s stepson Atsushi to provide a melancholic mirror of the the three Yokoyama children playing in the same fields and staring at the same fleeting flowers as their forebears did years before. Time is always passing, you think there will always be another opportunity for saying something or other, forging a connection or new memory but soon enough the sand in the glass runs through. As Ryota notes, it’s always a little later than you think but you can’t see it until it’s already too late.

Dense with naturalistic detail, Still Walking is a warm if sad look at one ordinary family dealing with the aftermath of tragedy yet offers its own comments on the nature of human connection between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and between the living and the dead. A timely reminder of the transience of all things, Koreeda’s most straightforward take on the family drama proves a both profound and moving experience which only deepens with repeated viewing.


I rewatched this recently at an ICA members’ screening where it screened on 35mm but the print actually had an intermission built into it even though the film isn’t all that long – strange experience!

Still Walking is available on DVD and VOD in the UK from New Wave Films and was also released on blu-ray in the US as part of the Criterion Collection.

The film’s Japanese title Aruitemo Aruitemo is taken from the song made famous by Ayumi Ishida – Blue Light Yokohama which turns out to have a surprising significance within the film: