No filmmaker has cast a wider shadow over Japanese film than Yasujirō Ozu. The late director of such classics as Tokyo Story is heralded for his innovative techniques, adding hidden depths to his fraught domestic dramas. Comparisons to Ozu loom large over contemporary auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, leading to proclamations that Kore-eda is Ozu’s heir – a claim that causes Kore-eda some discomfort.
Hallmarks of Ozu’s style helped form that of Kore-eda’s, from minimal camera movements to domestic settings. However, where Ozu’s stories can be summarised by the famous quote in Tokyo Story – “Isn’t life disappointing?” – Kore-eda’s filmography depicts the inherent love and joy that bonds a family, showing the different definitions of family that have surfaced as society’s values progress, as beautifully illustrated in his films Our Little Sister and Shoplifters.
Our Little Sister
One of the few adaptations Kore-eda has directed, Our Little Sister is based on Akimi Yoshida’s manga series Umimachi Diary. The 2015 film focuses on the Kouda sisters, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika (Kaho). The trio share an old house, living on their own ever since their father left with another woman and their mother abandoned them shortly after. After 15 years of estrangement, their father passes, and the sisters attend his funeral, meeting their younger half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose) and inviting her to live with them.
The film flows at a gentle pace, with conflicts only causing minor disruptions for this new family unit. The main source of tension is the resentment towards their “kind and useless” father (a common trait of the fathers in Kore-eda’s films), especially for Suzu, who feels her existence is a reminder of their father’s infidelity.
But, with every argument and emotional confession comes a comforting conversation between the sisters, strengthening their bond. Bonding sessions often involve preparing and eating meals, such as sharing their father’s favourite meal of whitebait on toast and the sisters teaching Suzu how to make plum wine from the fruits growing in their backyard.
With every conversation, the sisters learn to forgive both themselves and their father, realising he must have been kind “because he left us such a lovely little sister”.
Our Little Sister is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Kore-eda’s films often grapple with the meaning of blood ties in families. In his acclaimed 2018 film Shoplifters, Kore-eda further challenges the status-quo of the nuclear family by telling the story of people who are unrelated to each other, but instead bonded by crime.
The Shibata family (not their real name) live together under the cramped roof of the elderly Hatsue (the late Kore-eda regular Kirin Kiki). They live in poverty, surviving through various means, but the biggest proceeds come from shoplifting. It is while on a shoplifting mission that the kind but useless ‘father’ Osamu (Lily Franky, another Kore-eda regular) and ‘son’ Shota (Jyo Kairi) find Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little girl who lives in their neighbourhood left hungry and shivering in the cold. They take her home, feed her and make her part of the family when she is reported kidnapped.
In a typical film, a family like the Shibatas would descend into hellish misery. However, Kore-eda avoids the trappings of ‘poverty porn’, refusing to blame the family for their circumstances nor make it their defining trait, likely influenced by his own childhood of poverty. Even ‘older sister’ Aki’s (Mayu Matsuoka) career as a sex worker is depicted with respect. Instead, poverty is only a facet of their character, and their dimensions grow as the plot unfolds. Kore-eda’s humble depiction of ‘invisible people’ is, ultimately, what won Shoplifters the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and ‘completely bowled over’ jury president Cate Blanchett.
The heart of the film is the relationship between ‘parents’ Osamu and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) and the children. Nobuyo displays a maternal warmth to the children, while Franky is playful in similar fashion to the dad in Australian cartoon Bluey – even when shoplifting, Osamu makes it seem like a fun game.
Shoplifters is especially joyful when the Shibatas go on a beach trip after learning Yuri has never seen the ocean. There, the family splash around and laughter ripples in the air. On the beach, Nobuyo and Hatsue smile as they watch the scene from their beach towels, and Nobuyo comes to the realisation, “Sometimes it’s better to choose your family”.
Shoplifters is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Another of Kore-eda’s films, After the Storm, is also now streaming at SBS On Demand.