A Fortnightly Review
Written and directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
15 | 2h 1min | Crime, Drama | First release Japan June 2018. UK release 23 November 2018
By SIMON COLLINGS.
WHEN WE FIRST meet the Shibatas in the opening scenes of Shoplifters, they appear to be a close-knit family. There’s an ageing grandmother (Hatsue), a husband and wife (Osamu and Nobuyo), the wife’s half-sister (Aki) and a young boy (Shota). They live crowded into a small, poorly-heated house in Tokyo, and rely on shoplifting for food and other essentials. The grandmother has a meagre pension, and the husband and wife work in low-paid, insecure jobs. Together they manage to scrape by, and they seem to get along together, despite the evident hardship.
Kore-eda’s previous film, The Third Murder (2017), a powerful and complex courtroom drama, seemed to herald a new phase in the director’s work, a move away from the focus on ‘family’ for which he is best known. But with Shoplifters he has returned to preoccupations central to his work — the realities of the family in contemporary Japan, and in particular families which have been damaged by loss, separation, insecurity.
Nobody Knows (2004), Kore-eda’s fourth feature, was the first to explore these themes. It’s the story of children abandoned by their mother, and of the eldest boy, Akira, aged twelve, who is left to look after them. The film was based on actual events. Still Walking (2008), Kore-eda’s sixth film, developed these interests further, with a carefully observed study of tensions and personal disappointments in a middle-class family.
All the subsequent films, apart from Air Doll (2009), have had some connection with the family. The magical I Wish (2011) tells the story of two brothers who have been separated by their parents’ divorce, and who eventually learn to live with the fact that the family is not going to come back together. Like Father, Like Son (2013) explores what being a father means through the experiences of two couples whose sons were accidently switched in the maternity unit, and who only find this out when the boys are six.
In Our Little Sister (2015), three sisters living together as young adults adopt their younger half-sister after the death of their father. The girls construct a family unit out of the mess left by their parents. After the Storm (2016) is the story of a recently divorced couple and their son, and how they come to an understanding of the new relationship between them.
THE SHIBATA FAMILY is not what it seems. As the film progresses we discover that none of the family members are actually related. They have instead chosen each other, recreating the kind of traditional family unit each of them has for one reason or another been unable to find with kin. This ‘family’ exhibits few of the tensions experienced by the ‘real’ families depicted in Kore-eda’s other films. The old woman has people around who care for her, and her modest house provides them with a home. The Shibatas support each other, emotionally and financially. They enjoy being together.
How they came to know each other is not revealed, but we learn that the old woman, Hatsue, was abandoned by her husband in favour of another woman, and Aki is the grand-daughter of Hatsue’s former husband with that other woman. Aki too has been driven from home as a result of her father remarrying. Shota, the boy, was found by Osamu and Nobuyo in a car outside a pachinko parlour — an arcade of gambling machines. Being able to choose your family has its benefits, the old woman says to Nobuyo.
When Osamu and Shota, returning home one evening, find a small child, Yuri, left out on the veranda by her parents, alone in the freezing cold, they take her home and feed her. They intend to return her, but when they take the girl back that night, Osamu and Nobuyo overhear the mother and father engaged in a violent argument about how neither of them wants the child. Concerned for Yuri’s welfare, the Shibatas decide to keep her.
Yuri’s abusive parents fail to report her disappearance, and for several months it seems as though she will simply become part of the Shibata household. She blossoms in the care of her new family. But when social services find the girl is missing, her parents are suspected of murder and a hunt for the girl begins. The Shibatas face prosecution for kidnapping if they are caught. Osamu suggests the girl go back to her home, but she doesn’t want to leave. So they cut her hair, rename her Lin, steal some new clothes, and burn her old dress.
KORE-EDA BEGAN MAKING feature films in the 1990s when the Japanese economic bubble had burst and the economy was entering a long period of stagnation. Like all major economies Japan has been profoundly affected by ‘globalization’. Kore-eda’s work is a response to these changes, a series of meditations on the trends he observes around him and the impact of these on people’s lives.
He started out making documentaries for television and is an acute and subtle observer of Japanese society. The use of documentary techniques in his feature films creates a strong sense of realism, and the detached, ‘objective’ style of his work enables him to avoid sentimentality. The film historian Tony Rayns1has described Kore-eda’s work from Still Walking onwards as essentially high-end ‘soap opera’. But implicit in all of the work is a critique of the simplistic narratives offered by mainstream culture. Our Little Sister and Air Doll were both adapted from manga (popular graphic novels) but Kore-eda transforms the two-dimensional characters in the comic books into multi-dimensional individuals. In After the Storm, when the father Ryôta, a novelist, is offered an opportunity to write a manga, he declines despite his serious want of money.
Kore-eda has said that British director Ken Loach is an influence, but his political ‘agenda’ is much more nuanced than Loach’s. Mike Leigh is another UK director with whom Kore-eda is sometimes compared. Like Leigh, Kore-eda uses improvisation in the making of his films, but the ‘characters’ are not exaggerated in the way they are in Leigh’s movies. He works with a core group of actors empathetic to his vision, who help to realise his characters. Kore-eda’s subjects are complex and contradictory. Though they can be seen as representing certain ‘types’ in society, they are always also plausible individuals, and never there just to illustrate a political thesis.
THE ECONOMIC MALAISE which began in the 1990s, and which continues up to the present, has created hardship for many people in Japan, including children. In February 2017, The Japan Times reported that a survey commissioned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had found that ‘more than 20 percent of children in the capital come from households in severe financial hardship — where families scrape by on little income, miss utility or rent payments or lack the means to buy new clothes or go out.’
Historically, Japan’s social model was founded on the promise of a ‘job for life’, and steady career progression based on seniority. But over recent decades this model has been replaced by a two-speed system. There are still some regular employees who continue to enjoy the traditional benefits, and they work very long hours. But an increasing number of people work in insecure, non-regular employment and are less well paid (34 peecent less on average). These temporary and part-time workers made up 38 percent of Japan’s workforce in 2017 (compared with 20 percent in 1994).2 Many of them prefer these lower-paid jobs to the long hours and work culture of large firms.3
In the 1950s Japan’s divorce rate was around 8 percent. Now approximately one in three Japanese marriages end in divorce.4 In the twentieth century marriage and having children was the norm, but now one fifth of the adult population in Japan is single and that figure is rising.5The birth rate is falling, and the number of elderly people living alone, particularly women, is on the increase.
A further major issue in Japan is gender inequality. Traditionally women were not expected to work, but with a falling population the country needs to increase female participation in the workforce. However, the work women undertake is generally less well paid, and women are hugely under-represented in management, and in Japanese political institutions. According to the World Bank, only 9 percent of Japanese members of parliament in 2017 were women, one of the lowest percentages in the world.6
These economic and social realities form the backdrop to all of Kore-eda’s family-focused films. The surviving son, Ryôta, in Still Walking, is ‘between jobs’, and hides this situation from his parents. He has recently married a divorced woman who has a young son, an alliance of which his parents disapprove. In I Wish, the parents are separated, living in different cities. Both work in menial jobs. The father in After the Storm, another Ryôta, works for a private detective agency, snooping on adulterous couples. His widowed mother lives alone in a large housing complex in the Tokyo suburbs.
In Shoplifting, Osamu is seen setting off to work on a building site soon after the film starts. One of the other labourers hasn’t turned up, and the agent responsible for the workers tells his boss that he’ll ‘beat the man up’ when he sees him next. At work that day Osamu sustains a serious leg injury rendering him unfit for work, but as a day labourer he is not entitled to compensation. Nobuyo, his wife, works in a laundry, where a shortage of business has led to employees having to ‘job-share’. Later she and a colleague at the laundry are told that one of them has to be made redundant and they need to agree between them who it will be.
AKI ALSO WORKS in irregular employment, in what’s known as a ‘peeping room’ where a paying client watches a girl perform simulated sexual acts through a two-way mirror. Aki dresses as a school girl, and uses the name of her half-sister, an actual school girl, as her ‘professional’ name.
The establishment where Aki works includes ‘chat rooms’, where a client can pay to lie down beside a young woman and talk to her. There is no nudity, and sexual contact is prohibited. The services Aki offers are aimed towards romance and intimacy rather than sex, and are an increasing feature of the Japanese sex industry today.7 The number of people not having sex in Japan, including young people, is increasing.8 Young men unable to establish intimate contact with women use the services of businesses like the one where Aki works as a means of gaining confidence.
In Shoplifters, Aki is interested in one of her clients, Mr 4, who eventually agrees to her suggestion that they meet in the chat room. The boy lies with his head in her lap while she strokes his hair and talks soothingly. He has a wounded hand, the result of hitting himself. He doesn’t speak and seems to be mute. Aki has hopes of them becoming a couple.
Aki is interested in sex, and when she’s alone with Osamu one day, she asks him where he and Nobuyo ‘do it’. He tells her they have no need of sex because they are connected by deeper feelings. But later he and Nobuyo do make love, initiated by her. Afterwards he’s relieved, and happy, that he proved himself capable and wasn’t impotent.
HUMAN BEHAVIOURS ARE complex and often arise from competing motivations. Well into the film we learn that Nobuyo used to work as a bar girl and that Osamu was a client who became her lover. Together they murdered her husband, and Osamu has served a prison sentence. Nobuyo cannot have children, but she and Osamu want a family. The abduction of Yuri isn’t purely motivated by concern for the child. Nobuyo loves her as a daughter.
Later the circumstances surrounding the ‘rescuing’ of Shota are thrown into question when Osamu takes the boy to a multi-storey car park where he breaks into a vehicle and steals a bag. Throughout the film Shota has resisted calling the older man ‘dad’, despite Osamu’s attempts to persuade him to do so. Now he asks if Osamu was stealing from the car from which he was taken when a baby. Osamu protests that it wasn’t like that — but do we believe him?
MOST OF KORE-EDA’S films include individuals who flout social norms. This is often linked to creativity and the quest for artistic self-expression. In Still Walking, the temporarily unemployed Ryôta is a restorer of paintings. In I Wish, the father, Kenji, plays in a rock band, his musical ambitions ultimately mattering more to him than anything else.
Sometimes the rebels are portrayed as feckless characters who prefer play to hard work, like the lower-middle-class father Yudai in Like Father, Like Son, owner of an appliance shop. But despite his laziness and lack of ambition, Yudai has a lot to teach the other father, a driven, workaholic architect, about parenting.
Sometimes these non-conformers engage in criminal activity, as with Osamu in Shoplifters. The father in After the Storm, Ryôta, the aspiring novelist, steals from his mother and blackmails clients of the detective agency he works for. He squanders what he earns on gambling, as his father did before him, and he’s ‘simply not able’, as his ex-wife says, to manage the responsibilities of fatherhood.
It’s usually the men who exhibit the non-conformist behaviours, while the women are left dealing with the consequences, shouldering the duties for childcare and working to earn money. The all-female household in Our Little Sister is another version of this stepping outside of convention, here in order to re-create a ‘family’ the parents failed to provide. Suchi, the older sister, takes on the role of head of the household. Kore-eda’s films are full of weak men and strong women.
THE RELEASE OF Shoplifters in Japan provoked protests on social media from people who accused the director of ‘exposing Japan’s shame’ and of ‘endorsing crime’. The realities of life for people in low-paid, insecure work, and for older people living alone, are issues which many people in Japan still don’t believe exist, or which they see as the ‘fault’ of those in hardship. In interviews Kore-eda has pointed out that Shota increasingly questions the morality of stealing, and at the end of the film he allows himself to be caught. The film does not endorse crime. The Shibatas ‘adopt’ Yuri for positive reasons, and provide her with a loving home.
Some sections of Japanese society were appalled when Kore-eda declined an invitation to meet the Education Minister after Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Others applauded his wish to maintain a distance from government. The film does raise complex questions about what constitutes a ‘family’ and what it is the country’s laws are defending and protecting. After the family/shoplifters are caught the state can view their behaviour only in criminal terms. Yuri is returned to her dysfunctional mother, and at the end of the film we see her once again locked out on the veranda where Osamu and Shota first found her.
But Shoplifters isn’t just social critique. Many of Kore-eda’s films involve processes of individual growth. In his brilliant second feature, After Life, the recently dead spend a week in a kind of way station choosing the one special memory they will take with them into eternity. However reluctantly, people eventually make their choice. The acceptance of death involves a recognition of self, and for some this is a painful and difficult process. In the later films, choosing life requires a similar journey toward self-awareness.
I Wish ends with the older boy, Koichi, on the balcony of his room, where we first met him, looking across the bay to a still smoking volcano which earlier he had hoped would erupt, forcing the family to re-unite. Nothing material has changed in his life but the way he sees himself is wholly different. The switching of babies in Like Father, Like Son in one sense ‘destroys’ the architect father’s life, but it also opens up the possibility for him to engage emotionally with his son. By the end of After the Storm, the father, Ryôta, is just as dysfunctional as he was at the start, but he has come to accept that his ex-wife is never coming back to him, and she recognises that he isn’t going to change.
At the end of Shoplifters, with Nobuyo in prison and the members of the ‘family’ scattered, Shota visits Osamu in the room where he now lives alone. Osamu tells Shota that from now on he is no longer his ‘father’. But as the bus carries Shota back to the children’s home where he’s living he mouths the word ‘dad’ toward the fading figure of Osamu. At the point that Osamu relinquishes his illusions about fatherhood, Shota acknowledges the love Osamu has given him.
- Filmed interview included as additional material on the DVD of I Wish (Arrow Academy.)
- Banque de France’s ‘Eco Note‘ blog.
- ‘Plight of irregular workers‘, Japan Times, 1 May 2016.
- ‘Divorce in Japan‘, Facts and Details.
- ‘Many of Japan’s growing number of singles claim they are comfortable facing death alone‘, Japan Times, 14 June 2018.
- ‘Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments (%)’, World Bank.
- A. L. Stephenson, Culture of Desire: The history and development of sexual services in Japan, 2018. https://skemman.is/handle/1946/30004
- ‘Japan’s sex industry is becoming less sexual‘, Economist, April 2018.