Writer, director and editor Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest effort won the Palme d’Or this year at the Cannes Film Festival and it’s easy to see why, as this sublimely calm character piece is both exquisitely assured and profoundly moving.
In some ways as dark as Koreeda’s internationally best-known (and completely heartbreaking) film Nobody Knows, this developed from a single question – what makes a family? – and indeed the original Japanese title reinforces this further, as its literal translation is Shoplifting Family.
Somewhere in a chilly Tokyo, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky a.k.a. writer/actor Masaya Nakagawa) and young son Shota (Kairi Jō) are engaging in a carefully-choreographed shoplifting operation at a supermarket, and it’s obviously something they’ve done many times before (and although this looks like a how-to guide, please don’t try it yourself!). Afterwards they spot 4 year old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who’s sitting alone and miserable on a nearby apartment balcony, as her parents argue bitterly inside. They’ve seen her there before and it’s a freezing cold night, and so they impulsively take her home for some food, only realising in retrospect that this essentially qualifies as kidnapping.
The Shibata home is a cluttered, cramped place where Osamu and Shota live with Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and crusty granny Hatsue (the recently-late Kirin Kiki in her final role). A long, naturalistic scene has them all moving in and out of the camera’s way as they debate how to take the kid back so as not to get into further trouble, but all this talk stops when Hatsue spots bruises on the child’s arms.
We know they’re all criminals, and that they’re seriously impoverished in a society that just doesn’t care, and yet they decide to take the child in and treat her as their own, despite the dangers this will create. Koreeda makes sure that there’s nothing weird or creepy about any of this: Nobuyo (who’s evidently been abused herself) has feelings of maternal concern for little Yuri that feel powerfully real, while Hatsue does her grumpy granny routine, but it’s plain that she can’t help but love the poor child.
Shota’s not quite so sure about Yuri though, and when he initially takes her out and teaches her about the shoplifting code and various tricks of the trade, he’s jealous and dismissive, but as time passes the pair become happy accomplices. And Yuri actually starts to smile.
There’s an awful lot going on here (and bubbling just beneath the surface), and yet Koreeda’s expert handling means that layers are peeled away slowly and carefully, bit by bit, and while you wait for the darkness to come, you never question that the Shibatas are kind, compassionate people, even if they do break the law often (and increasingly recklessly). In fact, as you know this is all surely going to go bad, the comedic moments here tend to feel more melancholy than funny: Osamu mugging to make the kids giggle; the family laughing and shrieking with glee during a day at the beach; and a surprisingly sexy bit for this director where Osamu and Nobuyo enjoy some hanky-panky while slurping cold noodles.
Beautifully played by the whole cast, from the five Shibatas to the tiny Sasaki as Yuri to even the bit actors with one line, this is, as Koreeda hoped, all about family, in whatever form it might take, but it also says a great deal about the cold and brutal world outside and beyond, as it grinds along, seemingly oblivious, before swooping down to tear everything apart.