Looking back over the past year, it is fair to say that 2018 was a milestone in the Japanese cinema world. The passing of legendary figures such as Kirin Kiki and Harue Akagi left a deep scar in the Japanese cinema industry. On the flip side, the big screen saw a number of unprecedented successful titles, including the Cinderella story of One Cut of the Dead, the low budget zombie movie turned blockbuster, two new 3D animated Godzilla releases (Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle and Godzilla: The Planet Eater) and Code Blue: The Movie, which with over ¥9.22 billion profit ranked No.1 in box-office revenue.
But undeniably the most domestically and internationally celebrated news in the Japanese cinema world took place in May when director Hirokazu Kore-eda won 2018’s Palme d’Or — Cannes Film Festival’s most prestigious prize — for his film Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku). This milestone not only managed to turn the world’s eyes to J-cinema in a manner perhaps rarely seen since Akira Kurosawa’s days, but also proved something that had been rumored for a very long time: Kore-eda’s works stand out because they connect with viewers in a way that exceeds pure interest and fandom — they reflect on people’s very existence.
But what is so captivating about Kore-eda’s works and why are we continuously finding ourselves intrigued by his storytelling? Is it his constant pursuit of the question “what?” in his works? Or is it his continuous attempt to show us a side of Japan that no one else dares to point their fingers at? Or is it rather the opposite — his repetitive effort to show us that in fact, across borders, language barriers and cultures, we are all affected by the exact same life challenges and human emotions? Whatever your own interpretation is, the fact is that throughout his works, Kore-eda continues to explore certain themes that make his movies as popular and as they are valid. Family bonds, invisible communities, and the art of never knowing are just a few of them.
What makes up a family?
The point of entry in most Kore-eda films is family, a theme explored through the presentation of slices of ordinary people’s lives. Most of the time you will see no real action — there are no loud sounds, special effects or sudden plot changes as in most Japanese movies. Instead, we are invited to almost go hand in hand with families as they pass through ordinary struggles, emotions and milestones.
In Our Little Sister (Umimachi diary), for example, we follow the lives of three grown-up sisters who spend an ordinary life together in a large house that their divorced and estranged parents had left them. The movie begins with the funeral of their father, a man they hadn’t met in some 15 years, and a man they partially blame for the collapse of their nuclear family. He had fallen in love with another woman and had moved on with his life, leaving his three girls behind. At the funeral, the three sisters meet Suzu, a 15-year-old girl, their father’s daughter from his second marriage — and their stepsister. The movie develops as Suzu moves in with her sisters and the four begin a new life together as a family where each one has her own struggles, doubts and restrictions.
Throughout the movie, the concept of what makes up a real family is explored in various ways. The motherly figure here is not the mother (who after her husband’s betrayal had left the city and moved up to Hokkaido, also leaving her girls behind) but the eldest sister, Sachi. The core image of a “perfectly functioning” family where the parents are always responsible for their children is challenged, as is our ordinary image of a nuclear family. But most of all, we are provided with the ultimate question lingering in many of Kore-eda’s films: Are family bonds formed by blood or by love? In this film, we clearly see that blood ties mean little for Kore-eda and his characters.
Shoplifters, which Kore-eda presented partially as a continuation of Like Father, Like Son (Soshite, Chichi Ni Naru), further explores this theme. In Like Father, Like Son, we get to know two very different families who go on with their ordinary lives until a telephone call reveals that a nurse had swapped each family’s children at birth. They are faced by the dilemma of choosing whether to continue raising the sons they had known since birth or return to nature by choosing blood over rearing and swap their sons back. What happens in the end? It is a question that we as viewers are guided to anticipate as we watch the story unfold.
In Shoplifters, once again, we encounter a “family” comprised of strangers who have no blood ties. They are just several human beings who, under odd circumstances, have begun to share a roof together. The “parents” in the story are two social outcasts who create a family by taking children away from abusive situations and raise them as their own. The “family” makes ends meet by shoplifting and although their values about property or money fall outside the law, we see them living an otherwise happy life, loving and caring for each other. While imperfect and certainly not bound by blood or DNA, their bonds are stronger than any other “perfect” families we may often admire at first glance.
In a nation where blood ties are presumed to be the base of every nuclear family, Kore-eda’s continuous challenge to demonstrate that there are many alternatives to a family and none of them is abnormal as long as there is love and care, is a breath of fresh air.
Invisible communities: Spotlight on lives we know very little of
Another consistently present theme in Kore-eda’s works is the exploration of themes and communities that rarely make the news. Poverty and social isolation as in Shoplifters, medical malpractice as in Like Father, Like Son, child neglect as in Nobody Knows and Shoplifters, divorce and child separation as in After The Storm (Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku) and even abnormal love obsessions as in Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo).
While many movies in Japan are based on best-selling manga or novels, Kore-eda is known for looking for hints for his next projects in real life news and stories. Once again we witness ordinary lives and common misfortunes that are sadly so widespread that we (and the media) have become somewhat numb toward them.
Nobody Knows, one of Kore-eda’s most legendary works to date and the one that really put him in the international spotlight after it was screened at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, is based on a real-life child abandonment case that took place in Tokyo. Known as the “Sugamo child abandonment case,” the real-life incident took place in 1988 when a mother abandoned her four children in an apartment in Tokyo’s Sugamo district, leaving them to their own devices for nine months. The news was massively reported at the time due to the shocking nature of the case, but unfortunately, it does not stand alone. In 2010, the bodies of two infant children were found in an apartment in Osaka, after their 23-year-old mother had abandoned them with no food and no means to obtain any. The two had died of starvation. In 2017, a couple in their 20s starved their son to death in Saitama. The list, unfortunately, is long.
Child neglect is the third largest type of child abuse in Japan. As of fiscal 2017, there were 26,818 cases of child neglect in the country, nearly 1,000 more since the previous year. Nevertheless, the mainstream media solely report on these cases only when they end tragically. By bringing victims of widespread but unreported social misconduct in the spotlight, Kore-eda has managed to show — especially foreign audiences — another side of Japan that is unfortunately very well hidden behind pink curtains and glasses filtered by the media.
In Shoplifters, we once again witness child neglect but in a different form — we see the children who have already been abandoned and abused being rescued by “criminals” who then provide them with a warm and happy home. Here once again we are challenged by a question: What is crime, what is punishment and what is the real evil in our society?
In a 2018 interview with ScreenDaily, Kore-eda admitted that Shoplifters is also based on a real story, a pension fraud conducted by a family who after losing their elderly parents didn’t report the deaths and continued to receive their pensions illegally. Yet, when we hear the news about such frauds, the background of the family, the conditions that pushed them toward committing a crime, the state of mind they were at the time and the many other factors contributing to this, are most commonly omitted.
“The class divide has widened in Japan over the past five years, and there are more people who are not being reached by the safety net that should be in place,” Kore-eda said.
Crime and punishment: What do we really know about crime?
This is the final question that Kore-eda addressed in 2017 with the release of The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin), his second last film before Shoplifters. A clear deviation from his earlier works, the film focuses entirely on brutality, crime, the death penalty and the human mind that eventually is responsible for everything judged wrong or right.
The movie tells the story of a man who has confessed to two violent murders that, if found guilty, would most certainly have him face the death penalty. The crimes are brutal, inexplicable and senseless murders that cause the police quite a few sleepless nights while attempting to solve the case. Upon an encounter with an ambitious new lawyer, however, the man begins to change his story, making it more and more complicated for everyone (including us, the viewers) to understand his motifs for the crime. As Kore-eda’s plot evolves, we are once again faced with multiple questions, we — until the very end — most probably have no answers to. Is a man guilty because of past crimes? What validates killing another human being? What validates the death penalty? And what do we really know about a crime even when it has been supposedly fully solved? Silent, actionless and extremely dark in nature, the film perfectly manages to capture what Kore-eda does best — question the tangibility of humanity on screen.
The issue of what makes up a crime is also explored in Shoplifters, but unlike The Third Murder, it is far more direct and positive. In Shoplifters we see a number of crimes: child neglect, abandonment, shoplifting, “abduction,” and even child labor. But Shoplifters, by also showing us the backgrounds of those crimes, once again suggesting that the information we hear from the media and the stories we read online never show us the full picture.
Described by foreign media as “Japanese cinema’s humanist extraordinaire” (Film Comment, U.S.), and “Japanese master whose films never lack heart” (AFP), Kore-eda and his true art in cinematography lies in his storytelling and his ability to pose questions that make us reflect on our existence. His mastery, however, lies also in the fact that he almost never answers those questions; instead, he lets us make our own judgments. His stories are about ultimately having to accept that most often we will never know it all — but we can (and should) continue to stay cautious, alarmed and focused on the ordinary and less-so ordinary events that are happening in our lives and surroundings. For all we could say, this is one of the reasons why we can’t get enough of this director’s works — and why we shouldn’t.