Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Shoplifters is a Japanese-language drama film released in 2018 and was written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. The winner of the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the film follows the exploits of an unconventional family who resort to petty crime in order to get by. The film stars Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki and child actors Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki - the film is one of the last to feature Kirin Kiki before her death in September 2018. Released to critical acclaim, the film became a hit with both audiences in Japan and around the world with global takings of more than $72 million - what The Hollywood Reporter described as "an unprecedentedly strong performance for an imported pure arthouse drama". It also featured in numerous critics' lists of the best films of the year and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2019.
What's it about?
Somewhere in the vast urban landscape of Tokyo, the Shibata household have fallen on hard times and everyone pulls together to help ends meet. Osamu relies on petty thievery together with his adopted son Shota after Osamu is unable to work after an injury, his wife Nobuyo works for an industrial laundry service, Aki works at a hostess club while grandmother Hatsue collects the pension of her long-deceased husband and helps support the group. After a long day of shoplifting, Osamu and Shota are returning to their home when they discover a small girl shivering in the bitter winter air. Tempting her back with offers of food, the girl tells them that she is called Yuri and although she is reluctant to stay with them, evidence of child abuse encourages the Shibata's to take her in permanently.
Quickly becoming part of the group, Yuri spends her time trying to win Shota over as well as learning Osamu's tricks of the trade. But when the authorities launch an appeal over the missing girl, things take a dramatic turn. Deciding that Yuri would be worse off returning to her abusive parents, they give Yuri a new look and new name (Lin). The more time that passes, however, increases the pressure on everyone in the house and threatens not just their union but also their freedom.
What's to like?
Cutting through the language, Shoplifters manages to be easily understood with its central theme of family and what exactly defines a family. With its lovable crew of rogues and scoundrels, the film welcomes viewers with open arms and hospitality as we quickly find ourselves rooting for these underdogs and their hearts of gold. Led by Franky who displays both excellent comic timing as well as a flair for the heartbreaking, the cast feel as natural together as any real family. It's only when the final third begins that it becomes apparent that there are a lot of buried skeletons waiting to return and haunt them. Certainly, I felt conflicted about this - I wanted the characters to somehow survive in the face of a justice that would otherwise tear them apart.
The real skill of Kore-eda's direction is in making the film feel authentic and beyond the cast's performance (Kiki is superb as the curmudgeonly grandmother), the film offers a glimpse of Japan that isn't often seen beyond its borders. From the rundown slums where the Shibata's live to the idyllic beach seen during a all-too-rare holiday, the film avoids the more touristy places seen in films like Lost In Translation and it feels all the more genuine because of it. This is a well-produced and exceptionally performed parable about the ties that bind and is often heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time.
- The film is known as Manbiki Kazoku in its native Japanese which translates literally as Shoplifting Family.
- Kore-eda developed the film's story while working on his earlier film Like Father, Like Son with the question 'what makes a family?' He was also influenced by the Japanese recession including media reports of poverty and petty crime.
- In addition to its Oscar nomination, the film also secured BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. In total, it scooped 34 awards and 27 other nominations from different organisations and film festivals all over the world.
What's not to like?
Far be it for me to disagree with the illustrious panel at Cannes but I didn't feel as though Shoplifters was the real winner. Not that it's a bad film - I think you'll agree I enjoyed very much - but the snobbery of the festival over Netflix-distributed Roma meant that this film won the top honour almost by default, which slightly devalues its victory. There are a lot of similarities but I felt more emotionally engaged and invested with Alfonso Cuarón's monochromatic Mexican melodrama. Perhaps this is just down to me watching Roma first and if I'd watched Shoplifters earlier, maybe the roles might be reversed. What can you do?
In general, I thought that the pace of Shoplifters felt a little slow at times and the ending - while sadly inevitable - left me on something of a downer, despite the film's best efforts to try and spin a positive out of a lot of negative. It's as though Kore-eda himself fell for these characters in the same way I did and couldn't bear to inflict such a downbeat and depressing climax for them all. But he had no choice. While I easily sympathise with these crooks with their hearts in the right place, society's damnation of them for their choices felt like too harsh a sentence.
Should I watch it?
Shoplifters is a bittersweet look at a family trying to keep things together under the most demanding of circumstances. For all their criminal endeavours, it is quite apparent that these are not bad people - just forced to do whatever they can to keep things going. Gently comic and touching at times, this is a film that proves that Japanese cinema is much deeper than just impenetrable anime and cheap-looking Godzilla flicks. If you're looking for a film that's wonderfully indie and definitely not blockbuster than this will sort you fine. Just stay away from dubbing, as always.
Great For: petty criminals, anyone looking for something alternative, the DVD on your shelf will make you look like a serious film lover
Not So Great For: those who struggle with subtitles, social workers, Tokyo's tourism industry
What else should I watch?
Hirokazu Kore-eda has developed quite the reputation for producing quality cinema that often deals with themes with family ties and responsibilities in films like Like Father, Like Son and After The Storm, both of which also enjoyed some measure of success at Cannes. Kore-eda's next film, The Truth, will be his first non-Japanese picture and stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as feuding mother and daughter. And I shall be hunting it down when it's released sometime in 2019.
Japanese cinema has a long and proud history from the earliest silent films at the turn of the twentieth century to the golden age of the 1950's and the anime boom of the 1980's and 90's. Possibly the best year for Japanese cinema was 1954 which featured not just the first Godzilla movie which inspired a whole sub-genre of kaiju pictures but also Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai, which would later be remade as The Magnificent Seven and demonstrated Kurosawa's influence even then. But it would be his later films Kagemusha and Ran which would become Kurosawa's greatest work, both historic epics which brought much acclaim to the director and made him argubaly Japan's most well-known film director.
Yuri Hojo / Lin
Release Date (UK)
23rd November, 2018
Academy Award Nominations
Best Foreign Language Film
© 2019 Benjamin Cox