The fifty-six-year-old Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda began his career in TV documentaries, and his movies possess a factual straightforwardness offset by qualities that are subtle, elliptical, and quietly poetic. Kore-eda is intensely character- and family-oriented, and his funny-sad dramas contain a lurking potential for sentimentality, which he wards off with pinpoint specificity, and a scrutiny of human fates and foibles that highlights sorrow, duplicity, and neglect.
His films evoke the great Yasujirō Ozu, who tenderly investigated intergenerational family life in quietly luminous 1950s works like Late Spring and Tokyo Story. Kore-eda’s first non-documentary, Maborosi (1995), showed us a young widow, devastated by grief after the accidental death of her husband, and her unlikely path to recovery via an arranged marriage of convenience. Nobody Knows (2004) followed four young children abandoned by their mother and thrown on their own devices for survival. I Wish (2011) portrays two young brothers, separated in a divorce and living in distant cities, who dream obsessively of reuniting. In Like Father, Like Son (2013), a workaholic businessman and his wife discover that their newborn was accidentally switched with another infant in the maternity ward, and must decide what to do. And in Our Little Sister (2015), a trio of twenty-something sisters discover they have a fourteen-year-old half-sister, via their late father’s infidelity, and decide to adopt her.
These summaries suggest the terrain Kore-eda has staked out: the complexities of family life and bonds, the particularities of a child’s view of the world (both physical and moral), and the harsh nature of abandonment. These themes inform his current film, Shoplifters, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Shoplifters takes up the story of the Shibatas, a family headed by an older father named Osamu (Lily Franky), a cheerful scalawag whose specialty is pilfering. “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” he tells his twelve-year-old son, Shota, and in the opening scene we watch father and son wander through a supermarket in a practiced routine, the boy slipping items into his backpack as the father blocks the view of an employee. The mood is one of family hijinks and wry complicit humor, a juvenile pleasure in getting away with things. “How much does that cost?” Shota asks when his father mentions a household tool he wants to acquire. “About two thousand yen,” Osamu says, then leans close with a wink. “If you buy it.”
On the way home the two pass an apartment complex where a waif of a girl is wandering about, seemingly abandoned; in an act of impulsive generosity, they bring her home to feed her dinner. “We’re not a foster home,” Osamu’s wife Nobuya says when they arrive. “Could you at least bring something home that would make money?” But the family’s cantankerous grandmother, Hatsue, notices bruises and scars on the girl’s arms, and when Osamu and Nobuya bring her back to the apartment an hour later, they overhear loud domestic strife and the sound of a woman being struck. Nobuya clings to the child protectively, refusing to let her go. Thus do the shoplifters end up snatching a human.
Shoplifters provides a look into Japan’s underclass, struggling on the margins of society, shut out from the default comfort and security of middle-class life. Living off granny’s pension of 60,000 yen a month (about $550), the Shibatas do what they have to do; everyone has a scam. An older daughter, Aki, works as a dirty dancer in a porn store. We see the grandmother stuffing items of clothing into a bag in a department-store dressing room, and later playing slot machines at a casino. The grownups toil at part-time jobs, Osamu as a day laborer in a construction crew, Nobuya in a huge drycleaners (finding a tie-clip in the pocket of a suit jacket, she pockets it with a conspiratorial grin at a coworker). There are funny dinner scenes in the family’s crowded, cluttered flat, everyone loudly slurping noodles as they bicker over the brand of shampoo that Shota has pilfered from the corner store, or over the plight of the little girl, whom they are calling Lin. Eventually she becomes an apprentice in shoplifting, father and son teaching her the tricks of the trade.
Kore-eda is the kind of director who caresses the visual details, lingering on a close-up of the little girl’s bare feet curling around the leg of a chair, or on Shota, clacking a stick along the balusters of a railing. He captures the games children play, hiding behind trees, collecting bugs, gauging cloud shapes in the sky, as well as the ways that adults can be childlike—Osamu blowing air into a plastic shopping bag and playing soccer with it, or Nobuya drinking soda with Shota and belching with gusto, the two dissolving into laughter. The film invites us to take pleasure in the innocuous dailiness of family life and its rituals, like a child throwing a lost tooth up onto the roof with a wish, or seeing the universe in a small blue marble held up to a flashlight. One lovely nighttime scene is shot from above an abandoned lot where Shota is telling his father a story about a school of fish that gang up on a big tuna. The two play a game of catch-me, as Osamu—wearing a walking cast after a workplace injury—lurches about, laughing and trying in vain to catch his son, shouting, “I’m going to eat you all up!” The family struggles, but there’s plenty of tenderness amid the travail.