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)

Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Akiko Ohku, 2017)

tremble all you want posterShojo manga has a lot to answer for when it comes to defining ideas of romance in the minds of its young and female readers. The heroines of Japanese romantic comedies are almost always shojo manga enthusiasts – the lovelorn lady at the centre of Christmas on July 24th Avenue even magics herself into a fantasy Lisbon to better inhabit the cute and innocent world of a manga she loved in childhood. The heroine of Tremble All You Want (勝手にふるえてろ, Katte ni Furuetero), Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), does something similar in creating an alternate fantasy world filled with intimate acquaintances each encouraging and invested in her ongoing quest to win the heart of a boy she loved in high school who became the hero of her personal interest only manga, The Natural Born Prince.

At 24 Yoshika is still obsessed with “Ichi” (Takumi Kitamura) who is forever number “One” in her affections. Working as an office lady in the accounts department, Yoshika’s fingers tip tap over the calculator all day long until she can finally go home and read about her favourite topic, extinct animals, on the internet before it’s time to head back to work. Because of her undying love for Ichi (whom she has not seen or heard from in many years), Yoshika has never had a boyfriend or engaged in “dating” – something which causes her a small amount of anxiety and embarrassment when considering the additional awkwardness of starting out at such a comparatively late age.

Yoshika’s dilemma reaches a crisis point when, much to her surprise, a colleague becomes interested in her. Kirishima (Daichi Watanabe), whom she rechristens number “Two”, is, like her, slightly shy and bumbling but also outgoing and with a need to say things out loud. Seeing as this is apparently the first time this has ever happened to Yoshika, she finds it very confusing – not least because she can’t decide if “dating” Kirishima is a betrayal of Ichi or if she is really ready to leave her Natural Born Prince behind.

The dilemma isn’t so much between man one and man two but between fantasy and reality, idealism and practicality. Yoshika, painfully shy, lives in a fantasy world of her own creation as we discover during a tentative, emotionally raw musical number in which she is forced to confront the fact that the reason she doesn’t know the names of any of the people we’ve seen her repeatedly engage with is that, despite her longing and her loneliness, she has never been able to pluck up the courage to actually speak to them. Thus they exist in her head as a series of nicknames, theoretical constructs of “friends” with whom to engage in (one-sided) conversations – a frighteningly relatable (if extreme) concept to the painfully shy. Deprived of her fluffy fantasy, Yoshika arrives home to collapse in tears and finds her world growing colder, riding the bus all alone and eventually cocooning herself in her apartment.

Thus when Kirishima starts to show an interest, Yoshika can’t quite figure out which “reality” she is really in. The idea that he might simply like her doesn’t compute so she assumes the worst and pushes him away in grand style, retreating to the entirely safe world of Ichi worship in which she, in a sense, has already been rejected so there is nothing left to fear. Coming up with a nefarious plan to meet Ichi by stealing the identity of a former classmate and organising a reunion, Yoshika’s fantasy is challenged by the man himself or more specifically his perception of events which differs slightly from her own owing to not placing herself at the centre. Though Yoshika had correctly surmised that Ichi was uncomfortable with the attention he received as the school’s “number one” and decided to ignore him as a token of her love, she remained unaware of the degree to which he suffered in her obsession with her own unrequited desires.

Wondering if she should just “go extinct” like the animals she loves so much who evolved in ways incompatible with life on Earth – literally too weird to live, Yoshika begins to lose her grip on the divisions between fantasy and reality, unable to accept the “real” attention and affection of those who would be her real world friends if she’d only let them while continuing to engage in the wilfully self destructive mourning of her illusions. Tremble All You Want (but do it anyway) seems to become Yoshika’s new mantra as she makes her first active decision to gravitate towards the land of the real despite her fear and the conviction that it will not accept her. Filled with whimsical charm but laced with a particular kind of melancholy darkness, Ohku’s tale of modern love in a disconnected world is a strangely cheerful affair even as our heroine prepares to swap her colourful fantasy for the potential comforts of the everyday.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (hit the subtitle button to turn on English subs)

Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト 夏・秋 / 冬・春, Junichi Mori, 2014/15)

Divided into four hour-long segments, Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト) opens with a voice over from Ichiko (Ai Hashimoto) introducing us to Komori, her home village. High in the mountains, Komori is a community of farmers without a single store though there is a farmer’s co-op if you make the half-hour bike ride to the high street. It’s downhill so not so far on a bike on your way, but a good 90 minute walk in the winter snow. Most people do their shopping at the supermarket a few towns over but if Ichiko wants to go there it takes her the best part of a day. Ichiko, however, has a taste for doing things herself and so she grows most of her own food or barters for that which she doesn’t have with some of the other sharecroppers. Always with one eye on the future and particularly for the winter to come, Ichiko preserves her produce and makes the most of all she has.

Despite her feelings of inadequacy and incompleteness, Ichiko throws herself into the business of farming, weeding her rice field and preparing for the harvest all alone. She doesn’t seem to mind the solitude or the monotony, rejoicing in cooking the food she has grown and savouring each of its flavours. A gifted cook, Ichiko also likes to experiment, finding new ways to use each of the vegetables in her garden and trying them out on her two old school friends Yuta (Takahiro Miura) and Kikko (Mayu Matsuoka).

Yuta, like Ichiko, tried life in the city but ultimately decided to come home to the country. Despite wanting nothing but escape, Yuta found that he couldn’t adapt to the city’s insincerity. He missed real conversation and the ability to talk seriously about serious things whilst learning from others – something he so admired in the village. Ichiko, rather than empathising with him, is a little jealous. Yuta came home to face himself and discovered who he really was whereas she suspects she came back to escape doing exactly that. In short, she ran away and is living in hiding.

Yuta, adopting the gentle tones he was so in praise of, almost points this out to Ichiko albeit in a subtle way by telling her that he admires the way she does everything for herself but that he’s worried she may have missed the point. Ichiko’s need for independence is perhaps a reaction to abandonment by her mother which apparently happened quite abruptly in her teenage years. Her mother’s letters are vague and don’t include a return address or any details regarding where, how, or with whom she is currently living. Her last letter, however, seems to contain some relevant advice in the form of various excuses. Ichiko’s mother tells her that she was worried she’d just been wandering round in circles but finally realised that the arc of her life has been more like a spiral. Never taking the same path twice, she learned as she went and so finding yourself back at the start is not the same as never having set off.

Rather than actively making the choice, Ichiko merely commits to making it. Realising that it’s time to come out of hibernation and figure out where it is she wants to be rather than simply allowing Komori to become her default setting, the decision is made quickly and keenly. Yet it takes time, effort, and experience to bring something to fruition and, skilled as she is, Ichiko still has a few things to learn. Filled with wonderful food and idyllic scenery, Little Forest is perhaps an idealised view of country life – the kind of life lived by those who know how to live happily even when life is hard, but there is truth in its age old wisdom as long as you know how to harvest it.


Released as two two-part movies: Summer/Autumn (2014) & Winter/Spring (2015)

Summer/Autumn trailer (no subtitles)

Winter/Spring trailer (no subtitles)

A Silent Voice (聲の形, Naoko Yamada, 2016)

silent-voiceChildren – not always the most tolerant bunch. For every kind and innocent film in which youngsters band together to overcome their differences and head off on a grand world saving mission, there are a fair few in which all of the other kids gang up on the one who doesn’t quite fit in. Given Japan’s generally conformist outlook, this phenomenon is all the more pronounced and you only have to look back to the filmography of famously child friendly director Hiroshi Shimizu to discover a dozen tales of broken hearted children suddenly finding that their friends just won’t play with them anymore. Where A Silent Voice (聲の形, Koe no Katachi) differs is in its gentle acceptance that the bully is also a victim, capable of redemption but requiring both external and internal forgiveness.

Classmates Shoko (Saori Hayami) and Shoya (Miyu Irino/Mayu Matsuoka) are almost mirror images of each other, sharing the first syllable of their names (at least phonetically) but representing two entirely opposite poles. Before Shoko transferred into his school, Shoya was the class clown, behaving disruptively and acting as the leader of a group of mean kids who, if not exactly bullies, certainly exert a degree of superiority over their meeker classmates. Shoko, hard of hearing, remains necessarily quiet, communicating through messages written on a notepad. Though some of the other pupils are fascinated by the novelty of someone like Shoko suddenly appearing, delighting in writing messages back and for and eagerly embracing the opportunity to learn sign language in order to communicate with her more easily, the mean kids, with Shoya as the ringleader, delight in making her life a misery just because they can.

Though some of the other children object to the way Shoya and the others are behaving, they do little to defend their new friend. Some of the more impressionable kids even halfheartedly join in, perhaps feeling bad about it but also enjoying being part of the angsty pre-teen group of nasty kids, but when it all gets too much and Shoko decides to move on everyone is suddenly struck with remorse and a need to blame someone else for the harm they’ve caused. Hence, Shoya gets a taste of his own medicine, ostracised by his peers as the lowlife who hounded a deaf girl out of school. Who’d want to hang around with someone like that?

Humbled, the stigma follows Shoya on into his next school as feelings of guilt and self loathing intensify until he reaches a point at which he can’t go on. Intending to finally end it all, Shoya unexpectedly runs into Shoko again and eventually manages to make a kind of motion towards an apology, attempting to make friends after all this time and making use of the sign language he’s taught himself to show his sincerity.

Isolated both by the continuing rumours of his primary school days and an intense personal feeling of unworthiness, Shoya finds it impossible to interact with his fellow students whose faces are each covered by a large blue cross. Bonding first with another lonely outcast, Shoya’s world begins to open up again but the spectre of his past continues to haunt him. Reconnecting with some of the other kids from primary school he finds that not everyone remembers things the same way they’ve become engraved in his mind. Though a few are anxious to atone, one of his former friends, Naoka (Yuki Kaneko), takes a different approach to the problem in continuing to blame Shoko – for the “attention” her condition attracts, the “requirement” for others to modify their behaviour to suit her, for simply existing in the first place enabling the behaviour which took place (about which Naoka remains unrepentant), and being the root cause that her merry band of friends fell apart.

If it seems like the tale disproportionately focuses on Shoya’s guilt and and redemption rather than Shoko’s suffering the balance shifts back towards the end as the pair truly mirror each other with another suicide attempt forming the climax of the second act. Shoko responds to her often cruel treatment with nothing other than friendliness, smiling with hands outstretched even whilst continuing to receive nothing but rejection. Though she may seem all smiles and sweetness, her overly genial persona is itself an act as she tries to overcompensate for the “burden” she feels herself to be causing through her need for “special treatment”. Eventually, Shoko snaps – firstly in primary school as her well meaning attempts to bring Shoya over to her side fail once again, and then later in a much more final way as she decides that there is nothing left for her in a world which fails to accommodate for difference.

The story of a girl who struggles to be heard, and a boy who refuses to listen, A Silent Voice is a quiet plea for the power of mutual understanding and reconciliation. Director Naoko Yamada and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida bring the same kind of quirky slice of life humour which made K-On and Tamako Market so enjoyable along with the raw visual beauty which has come to define Kyoto Animation to this often dark tale, perfectly integrating the more dramatic elements into the otherwise warm and forgiving world in a believable and natural way. Nuanced, complicated and defiantly refusing total resolution, A Silent Voice is one of the more interesting animated projects to come out of Japan in recent times and further marks out Yamada as one of its most important animation auteurs.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)