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Friday, 28 December 2018

Movie review: Shoplifters, dir Hirokazu Kore-eda (2018)

This sentimental drama has a number of strong messages to make and in many ways it achieves its goals but there was a major problem with plot of this film, one which only appears at the end. On the face of it, the film’s message is one about kindness and decency but in the end I wasn’t hands-down convinced by the main characters and so I think there is another message about Japan that is buried in the characterisation that will be difficult to glean without knowing some Japanese. The film won acclaim at Cannes and has been talked about quite a bit. I saw it at the end of its season in Newtown. The guy who sold me the ticket told me that other films would be screening at the end of the year, and so it was fortuitous that I got to see the film when I did. I had no plans for Boxing Day, so went alone to the movies.

If you can speak some Japanese you will get more out of this film than if you are relying merely on the subtitles. There’s nothing wrong with the subtitles but it helps if you can understand the tone of the speech used in the screenplay. This can help you to orient yourself in relation to the characters that are offered for view. The main characters are in actual fact no better than they should be and it felt odd to me that they were being held up as examplars, but I will get to this aspect of the film later. The speech they use when talking to one another is very demotic Japanese, and there are few moments of heightened drama. This is a kind of filmmaking that is familiar to regular watchers of Japanese cinema. There was something in this film of the plainness and pragmatism of director Juzo Itami. In what follows there will be spoilers so if you don’t want to know how the film ends, stop reading here.

The story is about a “family” that comprises a “grandmother” (Hatsue, played by Kirin Kiki), two “parents” who use the names Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky, a man aged in his 40s) and Nobuyo Shibata (played by Sakura Ando, a woman aged in her 30s), a “sister” (who is aged about 20 and who goes by the name Aki Shibata; played by Mayu Matsuoka), and a “brother” (who is aged around 12 and who is called Shota Shibata; played by Jyo Kairi). They all live in Hatsue’s house and one night on the way home on foot Osamu and Shota discover a small girl sitting by herself on the balcony of her apartment. It is winter. They take her in and change her name so that she becomes another “sister” (Lin).

The family survives on the fringes of the mainstream in the casualised workforce. Osamu for a time has a job on a construction site and Nobuyo works in a laundry washing and ironing clothes. Aki works in the sex industry providing services to paying customers (although this is Japan, where prostitution is illegal, so the kinds of services on offer involve a kind of voyeurism). To supplement Hatsue’s pension and the earnings brought in by Osamu and Nobuyo, Shota does some shoplifting occasionally, bringing home snacks, cup ramen in styrofoam containers, and even shampoo when it’s needed.

The family is happy together and Lin eventually convinces Shota to be nice to her. One day, all of them get on a train and go to the beach but Hatsue passes away immediately after this outing and Osamu and Nobuyo bury her in the grounds of the house so that they can keep receiving her pension. (Nobuyo knows the PIN for her bank account, so she can continue to take money out if it even though the old woman is dead.) But one day Lin goes into a shop where Shota is busy shoplifting, and when he sees she is about to be spotted by a staff member, he creates a distraction, grabs a bag of oranges and runs out the front doors into the street. When two staff members corner him on an overpass, he jumps over a concrete barrier and breaks his leg on the road below. He is taken to hospital but the police are involved in the matter and the entire house of cards comes crashing down. The police accuse Nobuyo of kidnapping and of illegally burying a dead body, and she goes to jail. Shota is taken into foster care and starts going to school. In the end Osamu has Shota over to stay in his new apartment and they make a snowman in the parking area out the back of the building. Lin goes back to live with her parents but her mother continues to mistreat her.

What I didn’t get was why Nobuyo didn’t tell the police that Lin’s parents were abusing her. She had an opportunity to do this and in the process she might have mitigated her own guilt in their eyes. There is a final scene when Nobuyo tells Shota about how she and Osamu had taken Shota from a car in a parking lot behind a pachinko parlour. She does this so that the boy can track down his parents if he wants to. It’s uncertain if Shota is going to stay in touch with Osamu. There is a lingering shot of poor Lin on her apartment’s balcony which is designed to claw at the audience’s heart strings but did it quite come off?

What this movie told me is that Japan is suffering a kind of spiritual crisis. After a generation of slow or negative growth due to a shrinking population and a sluggish economy, many people, like the “family” in this film, are doing it hard. But the kind of growth that immigration might bring to the economy is unlikely given Japan’s distrust of foreigners. And the kind of down-home plainness that the Shibatas embody is exactly the kind of barrier to opening up the doors to people who are born and educated outside the country. On view in the film are very ordinary, average people with limited life goals; most Japanese have little time for people raised elsewhere. This film is determinedly Japanese and the people in it are very plain, with prosaic aspirations and mundane dreams. The people in this film are certainly not the kind of political progressive (or “liberal” as Americans say) who would go to see an art film in a small cinema and who would embrace immigration as official government policy.

But still the characters of Nobuyo and Osamu, Hatsue and Aki remain in your mind as somehow emblematic of the best of humanity. To ordinary Japanese people (people in reality very much like like the Shibatas who gather in one memorable scene in the doorway of Hatsue’s house to listen to fireworks going off, and who talk among themselves about the colours and the spectacle), the idea of foreigners coming in and getting citizenship is beyond the pale. The paradoxes that this film holds in its fabric are multiple. Highly recommended.

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