Hirokazu Kore-eda's film begins with as unremarkable an opening as possible: a father and his son enter a grocery split up to walk down separate aisles. Only father and son keep throwing each other sidelong glances and hand signals; only son does a little finger twiddle that we'll see from time to time; only when a clerk working nearby glances at son father walks up to block the clerk's view while son drops several packets of instant ramen in his backpack. Graceful bit of choreography made casual by long practice, understated yet captivating in its intricacy.
A beguiling beginning for a beguiling film, about a family that practices one kind of scam after another. Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) is a day laborer, teaches his son Shota Shibata (Kairi Jo) how to boost store items on the side; his wife Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura Ando) works at a laundry, where she purloins trinkets left in clients' pockets; Nobuyo's sister Aki Shibata (Mayu Matsuoka) works at a club, where she strips through one-way glass; their grandmother Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki in one of her final roles, sadly passed away last year) collects a pension from her dead husband and occasionally visits her husband's second wife's son--Aki's parents as it turns out--for the occasional monetary handout.
Enter Yuri (Miyu Sasaki); Osamu and Shota find her playing in her apartment's balcony, possibly not for the first time; because it's a cold night they offer her a croquette invite her home. Yuri is busy munching a second croquette when Hatsue examines her arm, spots a bruise: "What happened here?" "I fell." Hatsue pulls the sleeve up further: the little girl is covered in scars. Osamu and Nobuyo look at each other. "Let's take her home before the cops get here," Nobuyo says, but when she and Osamu carry the child back they hear (standing outside the apartment) the parents yelling at each other for losing the child. "I didn't want to have her either!" the unseen mother screams. "That hurts!"
Aki raises the possibility that keeping Yuri constitutes kidnapping; Nobuyo points out that they aren't asking for a ransom so--no. The family is quite practiced at rationalizing; when Shota asks about their shoplifting Osamu explains that if no one has bought the items and the store doesn't go bankrupt then the goods are free for the taking and it isn't stealing. Not really.
The next hour or so Kore-eda shows us the family at work at play at the everyday business of living, which grows gradually more difficult by the day. Yuri (now renamed Lin and sporting a shorter 'do to escape detection) wets the bed; Nobuyo grumpily gathers the soiled sheets while Lin repeatedly and not a little desperately apologizes (both the bedwetting and manner of apology classic signs of abuse). Osamu is injured at work and can't collect a paycheck for a month; Nobuyo is eventually laid off at the laundry.
Shota takes Lin shoplifting; the owner calls them over, chides Shota: he shouldn't be teaching his sister to steal the old man says, giving them both treats as a bribe and warning. Shota reports the incident to Osamu who sidesteps the issue: "of course it's too early for Lin--"
It isn't all downward spiral; the family goes off to a beach and enjoys a day of sun and beach and waves. Nobuyo sits on the sand next to Hatsue, munching on spiced corn on the cob (the folks for all their hardships are constantly snacking--at one point slurp up a big pot of ramen cooked in meat broth, Chinese cabbage ("good for you"), and sticky-brown gluten cakes substituting for more expensive meat ("Oishi?" Lin is asked when chewing on a dribbly cake; Lin nods solemn assent). Mother watches Aki play with Lin: "It's not going to last long," Hatsue says. "Sometimes it's better to choose your own family," Nobuyo replies. "If only not to have expectations," Hatsue says.
The words resonate through the film's latter half as (in line with Hatsue's dark warning) everything goes up in smoke (skip the next four paragraphs if you intend to watch!). Shota is injured during a shoplifting attempt the family rounded up by police; suddenly the bright light of society is shone upon this few this happy few this band of burglars: Nobuyo and Osamu aren't really married, Shota isn't really their child, Hatsue not really their grandmother. The family has apparently been cobbled together from filched parts like much of their diet, and when interrogated--in nonjudgmental manner, never a raised voice or harsh tone--Osamu and especially Nobuyo can only either stammer or hang their heads in shame. "But Yuri was being abused!" one thinks; "that's justification for taking her, right?" Difficult to think straight when your entire life is under a microscope, being picked apart by tweezers. Possibly one or the other 'parent' did mention the fact but Kore-eda refrains from including that moment because it's beside the point--not 'how bad are other families are compared to our own?' but 'how real is a family when it has no blood ties? When it's founded on kidnapping and fraud and maintained by petty crimes?'
More damning evidence is the fact that when push came to shove survival came first: the moment word arrived of Shota's arrest the 'family' quickly packed up to flee, in effect abandoning the boy. Later Shota asks Osamu about it--a crucial moment where one family member is about to pass judgment (as opposed to general society in newspapers and evening news) on another family member. For the first time the man is direct with the boy, possibly because Shota has learned all of Osamu's deceptions and he knows it. The scene plays with little fuss, arguably the quietest moment in Kore-eda's quiet little film, but the point slides home like an icepick: Osamu in ending any possibility of becoming father to the boy is acting like a real father to Shota.
A witheringly powerful last third, helped in no small part by Kore-eda's matter-of-fact almost documentarylike manner in revealing details and recording the couple's reactions (Osamu and Nobuyo shot head-on, no music, the camera locked down and waiting impassively while they search long and hard inside themselves for answers). Under the heat of the interrogation lamp the Shibata's charming oddball life withers into something ludicrous and lurid, an in effect crime family abducting children, sponging off society's leftovers, burying evidence of their offenses literally under the house they hide in.
And yet and yet and yet--you remember how Nobuyo at the point of returning Yuri listens to the parents' screams and tightens her grip round the child; you remember her hugging Lin and explaining "This is what someone does when they love you." You remember the huge pot of ramen, the day at the beach, the way everyone wept when Hatsue failed to wake from her sleep. Nobuyo believed: "Sometimes it's better to choose," she said, at one point choosing sacrifice to save some portion of her family. Hatsue qualified Nobuyo's assertion, suggested a chosen family is both stronger and easier; Nobuyo's act perhaps suggests that maybe it isn't in the nature of the family or how it was formed so much as it is what one is capable of doing for that family that makes the difference.
I don't think Kore-eda (despite the assertion of some critics) definitively picks one side over another on the issue. The family's time together for all its joy and scrumptious food was a halfbaked fairy tale; it needed the scrutiny of others to temper that tale, finish baking what can be baked, dissipate what can't last. The family coming out the other side ultimately fractures but what's left at least has the possibility of forming something more enduring. Plus each member retains some memory of what was, a notion of what might have been, a dream of what could still be.
First published in Businessworld 3.22.19