Imagine, if you will, a movie where nothing much happens. Now, imagine being captivated by it. Now imagine going away feeling like you just witnessed some of the best, most wonderful cinema you’ve seen in a while. A long while. That feeling? That’s the Kore-eda effect.
Okay, fine, it’s not like Hirokazu Kore-eda is the only director who has the deftness and sensitivity to take the mundane and make it watchable without going over the edge into sentimentality and melodrama, but he is one of the few directors that has perhaps made a career out of – as the BFI’s Leigh Singer termed it – the mellow drama. His ability to tell the gentlest of human tales, the way his underlying messages don’t so much as smack you in the face as stand quietly in your peripheral awareness, surely has to be one of modern cinema’s more pleasurable spectacles.
Shoplifters is perhaps his latest and greatest example of this, winning him the coveted Cannes Palme d’Or (the highest possible prize in the prestigious invitation-only film festival) and garnering place as fourth highest grossing domestic film in 2018. This fairly simple family drama begins with the disreputable head of his small household, Osamu (Lily Franky, Like Father Like Son, Top Secret: Murder in Mind), and his young son Shota (Jyo Kairi) who are walking home one chilly evening after having shoplifted the family necessities they can’t afford to buy.
They pass by a ground floor apartment where a 5-year old (Sasaki Miyu) is quietly playing outside while her parents scream at each other inside. Feeling for the young girl, father and son take her to their small, already crowded home to get her warm and feed her what meagre fare they have, but when Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Ando Sakura, Love Exposure) discovers burn marks and scars on her arms, they just somehow… don’t take her home again. Along with the grandmother (Kirin Kiki, Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me and Sometimes Dad, Sweet Bean, Still Walking) who’s still claiming her dead husband’s pension, and Nobuyo’s younger sister Aki (Matsuoka Mayu, Chihayafuru) who has a part time job as a sex worker but isn’t asked to contribute to the household income, that makes one more mouth to feed. Considering this family is living in what amounts to poverty, you’d think that’s where the source of the conflict would be, but not a word of real protest is uttered over the decision, because these people might be petty thieves, but they have compassion to spare.
And that’s where the conflict lies, because while the family does live outside the ‘system’ (a fact in and of itself a little shocking, considering Japan’s actual impoverished are hardly considered a political topic fit for public recognition, let alone internationally acclaimed cinema) it’s not the struggle of living or the evils of society that Kore-eda is necessarily interested in. The financial circumstances of the family only really exist as a backdrop for the true essence of the tale: the connections between people, what they are, what they appear to those on the outside to be, how they’re formed and how they change, and how they can be broken. This becomes painfully clear in the last twenty or so minutes as many things you thought you understood are suddenly not at all what you thought, and yet the compassionate, human core of the characters still remains, even when cast in an unexpectedly different light.
There’s so much more to it than that, of course. The outstanding performances, particularly by Ando and Franky as the heads of the household. The delightful humour of the recently deceased Kirin Kiki. The kids (how Kore-eda can get the performances he does out of children might as well be magic) and how they are somehow the axis upon which all the moments of complete joy and crushing emotional defeat seem to revolve. The camerawork. The whole film is somehow entirely lovely to look at, but Ryuuto Kondou comes up with some truly special visual moments that will stay with you a good while longer. And then to top it all off Haruomi Hosono’s soundtrack is practically perfect.
It’s not surprising the film both won recognition and made a few key political figures a little nervous, given the context versus the content and the mastery of execution on all fronts, but Kore-eda is not saying that it’s better to live in anarchy, nor is he praising the virtues of the system. He would never be so heavy handed as to preach about how Japan deals with its poor nor make overt judgements on how well or badly it handles domestic family issues. If anything, he merely focuses a clear eye on what is and leaves it up to the viewer to decide what should be, even while his truths are completely unambiguous.
He wants us to look at what we value, and what we should value. How we make up that difference is up to us, but at least recognising it’s there is something of a step in the right direction. That he also happens to entertain, to make an experience that is both charming and touching to watch, is almost like an added bonus, and that more than anything else is the Kore-eda effect.