With Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda tackles his most complex family unit to date: an impoverished, patchwork household who are biologically unrelated. Only occasionally featuring shoplifting, the film’s title in French translates to “A Family Matter”, a much more fitting summation of the elements at work. The morality of shoplifting, among other weighty subjects such as deception and kidnapping, blur into shades of grey when we consider them “family matters”. The film hurtles quickly from Oliver Twist-esque escapades to powerful questions about what constitutes “proper” familial care or even a “proper” family.
Shoplifters, like so many of Kore-eda’s works, emerged from real stories. In this case, Kore-eda drew from the reported crimes committed by families hit by the recession in Japan, including a case in which a family stole some fishing rods. As always, Kore-eda’s acutely rendered family portraits arise not just from his sublime direction and cast, but his obsession with life, real life – even his venture into the After Life (1998) was weighted in the bores of living. Nobody Knows (2004) was based on the Sugamo child abandonment case which rocked Japan in the late ’80s. Still Walking (2008) is largely acknowledged to be about Kore-eda’s late mother. Kore-eda’s real-world inspirations of abandonment, death and child abuse seem far removed from his delicate touch. And yet, through his handling, we observe how such things might happen in a family, and how they may look deeply human – somehow subtle – when they do.
Nobody Knows is Kore-eda at his most anthropological. His documentary style of fiction follows preteen Akira as he is left to care for his three younger siblings when their mother abandons them, leaving them with only a small amount of money to survive. Kore-eda’s subsequent family portrait is a stacking of daily routines, hermetic activities and slowly-forming squalor. Neglect saturates the ordinary day softly in shots of whittled-to-the stub crayons, a dirty home, or a child eating paper. It is a portrait of incompleteness in a family, not solely from a lack of a mother, but a lack of household stability.
As Japan’s social and economic landscapes often come into play throughout his films, Kore-eda himself notes that many of his films are received differently depending on cultural context. However, in Like Father, Like Son (2013), arguably the biggest tear-jerker of his cannon, Kore-eda distills universal truths about parental relationships, with potently relatable results. It is a tale of an attempt to “swap back” two sons swapped at birth. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a stern father, grapples with a way to talk with both sons. Kore-eda’s father-son conversations are instantly recognisable, as is the strange combination of protection and manipulativeness used when explaining “adult” ideas to a child. As Ryota stares at the son he raised and asserts that his new family will ”love him more than he does”, we are reminded of Kore-eda’s ability to convey the fallible, occasionally cruel, nature of humans and so too of parents. Kore-eda delves deep into ideas of inheritance in the nature vs. nurture argument, all the while playing with what we have all inherited: the imperfect language of family.
In I Wish (2011), Kore-eda plays with viewers’ childhood experiences once more to form fresh perspectives on family. As 12 year-old Koichi (Kôki Maeda) waits to make a wish as two bullet trains fly past each other, a montage of images appears. Koichi reflects on fields of flowers, half a bicycle bell, a piece of Karukan sponge cake – tokens of his journey thus far. The shots mimic how we create mental keepsakes from our childhood; new portraits of our family and environment. However Kore-eda is clearly wary of the perfect memory of family togetherness; after all, I Wish is about a child’s gradual realisation that to “wish” for the depiction of his parent’s reunion will only cause destruction of volcanic heights. Instead, Koichi’s Father tells him that he must “choose the world” over family – Koichi obliges and chooses images from the world rather than of his reunited parents. Kore-eda helps along the way by offering a mismatched cast of surrogate relatives to make Koichi feel at home whilst venturing into the unknown; most notably with an old couple who adopt Koichi and his friends as “grandchildren” for one night during their adventure.
Kore-eda’s undeniable mastery emerges in observing how the family functions, but it is also in unearthing what its function is. He returns, almost habitually, to gently pick at its anatomy: what makes a family? What does a home look like? In Shoplifters, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) asserts that “nothing in a store belongs to anyone yet”, until it is chosen, taken, or “found”. There is a playful musing at work that perhaps people too can be “found” and new, chosen families carved from the world. However, the real perceptiveness of Kore-eda’s work lies in remembering that things can also be discarded, an anxiety which gently permeates each of his iterations of the family.