SHOPLIFTERS (2018, Manbiki kazoku, Japan)

January 3, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. We typically think of family as blood relatives, those affiliated by marriage or adoption, and those funky cousins (sometimes ‘removed’) that, according to the family tree, are supposedly related to us. Expert Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, 2013) presents a story that will have you questioning whether the strongest connection is blood, heart, or money.

We first witness ‘father’ Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky) and adolescent ‘son’ Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a well-coordinated shoplifting maneuver at the local grocery store. On the way home they stumble across a shivering child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who has been seemingly abandoned by her parents. They take her home to warm her up and feed her, and it’s here we discover the multi-generational family living in a tiny apartment. This family also consists of ‘grandmother’ Hatsue (an excellent Kirin Kiki), ‘mother/wife’ Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and teenage daughter Aki (rising star Mayu Matsuoka).

When the family discovers signs of abuse on the little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), they decide to keep her – less an informal adoption than an admission to the club. See, this family lives in poverty, and finds comfort in working odd jobs and shoplifting. They do bad things out of necessity, in a kind of twisted ‘honor among thieves’. Each person, regardless of age is expected to contribute to the team. The eldest provides a steady income through her deceased ex-husband’s pension, and by scamming mercy money from his second family. Osamu and Nobuyo have regular part time jobs, while Aki works in a sexy chat room. Shota polishes his shoplifting skills and even tiny Yuri begins to learn by watching him. Everyone contributes in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of petty cons.

As the film progresses, we get to know each of the characters and begin to care about them … rooting for them to find success. Writer-Director Kore-eda draws us in with subtle scenes of interaction between the characters, each willing to sacrifice for the other. He raises the question on whether choosing one’s family might create a stronger bond than those blood ties. What really seems to matter is where we feel we belong, and where are accepted.

The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and it’s likely due to the devastating and expert final act. In a dramatic shift in tone, true character is revealed – it’s a shocking revelation on some fronts, and fully expected on others. Each family member has a backstory that slowly unfolds through the first two acts, and then abruptly slaps us upside the head as the film nears conclusion. There are many social aspects to be discussed after this one, including how the child welfare system (seemingly regardless of country) sometimes works against a child’s best interest, even with the best intentions. This is one that will grab your heart and then stick with you for a while.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9382rwoMiRc

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OUR LITTLE SISTER (2016, Japan)

September 6, 2016

our-little-sister Greetings again from the darkness. Movies don’t frequently begin after the most disruptive drama has already occurred. However, such is the case with director Hirokazu Koreeda’s adaptation of Akima Yoshida’s graphic novel “Umimachi Diary”, the source material for this tale of sisterly love formed by tradition and some unfavorable circumstances that are “nobody’s fault” (a recurring theme).

Three adult sisters live together in their large family home, and have done so for many years – since their father left for another woman, and their mother, unable to cope, abandoned them. Sachi (Hanuka Ayase) is the oldest and self-burdens by carrying the most responsibility. Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chiko (Kaho) are quite a bit more care-free than their older sister, but this non-traditional family unit functions with traditional meals served within the walls of their traditional house.

The sisters attend their father’s funeral where they meet their half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose), who they invite to come live with them. The small town community of Kamakura provides a quaint and beautiful backdrop for the film … which has plenty of personal drama (what would you expect from 4 sisters?) but lacks the high drama that cinema usually heaps on screen.

We easily get to know each of the characters, and how they deal with being a product of their past, while hoping not to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Although “death” is seemingly everywhere, this is mostly a story about appreciating life and beauty – and the strength that comes with a family bond.

The acting is superb throughout, and director Koreeda’s camera work is understated and complimentary … except for the moments when it’s breathtaking – the Cherry Blossom tunnel, for instance. The look and feel of the film is quite tranquil, but emotions are constantly stirring – whether at a local diner or harvesting the family plum tree for this year’s plum wine. It’s little wonder that the film was so well received at Cannes Film Festival, and for those who enjoy a less-thunderous approach to cinema, it should be quite a pleasant two hours.