Often compared as the heir to ‘Yasujirô Ozu’, Hirokazu Koreeda’s domestic family drama’s have earned him the status of a modern master, known for their tender subtlety and effortless beauty. From After Life (1998) a modern parable concerning the fragility of memory, to After the Storm (2016) one of Koreeda’s many ventures into defining the role of the ‘father’, his most recent work, Shoplifters this year earned him the ‘Palme d’or’. An award perhaps given in merit and retrospect for his bevy of previous masterworks, but which shouldn’t overshadow the understated yet undeniable beauty of his latest release.
When Osamu (Lily Franky) and ‘adopted’ son Shota (Jyo Kairi) are walking triumphantly back from another sucessful shoplift, with armfuls of petty loot, they come across an abandoned child in the doorway of her home. Cold and frightened they take her home for the night, however upon discovering her assortment of burns, scars and bruises, choose to take her under their wing and ‘adopt’ her as one of their own. As Osamu’s wife, Noboyo, somewhat trivially points out “it’s not kidnapping as we’re not asking for a ransom”. Unlike the sweets, vegetables and tools they steal every day without ramification, this theft must be obscurely justified.
This chance encounter sparks a fateful series of events, a Dickensien drama of finding hope in poverty, with a contemporary twist which questions the ‘right’ of ownership and the pitifulness of the human condition. Whilst this may paint a dismal picture, it is in Koreeda’s nuanced writing that we are instead drawn to a story, delicately told, of individual struggle, regret and optimism.
This is led by the excellent lead performance of Lily Franky, whose ‘Osamu’ is a broken, and physically weak man with a wide smile that suggests otherwise. Shelved with a dull labouring job devoid of any humanity, he subsidises this with a seemingly professional routine in shoplifting, before selling on his stolen goods. It is unclear however whether Osamu is doing this out of sheer desperation or twisted joy, a central conflict wonderfully explored.
Wrestling with his parental duties, it is his desire to be seen as a father and role model to his ‘self-adopted’ son. Sharing a personal moment with him at the beach, he hopes will be poignant, and is to an extent, but is moreso a demonstration of his inadequacies as a father. Koreeda highlights the complications of his societal position without dwelling too much on the political devices that may have led him there. Osamu forms the foundation of the family structure and is the backbone of Koreeda’s tale itself, leading it to its fateful, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Koreeda has a deft ability to capture life at its most honest, most curious and most poetic. In a look, a smile or a delayed reaction; every direction is meticulously ordered. In this he allocates the extraordinary in the ordinary. A moment of curiosity shared between two playing children. A knowing glare between two conspiring co workers. A wistful nod looking out to sea.