In 2004, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda directed a heart-wrenching family drama about an apartment full of abandoned, impoverished children who spend countless months fending for themselves outside parental and governmental supervision. I have not seen enough of Kore-eda’s catalog to say whether Nobody Knows is a text that typifies his aesthetic or storytelling preoccupations as an auteur, but it’s a work that certainly echoes loudly in his latest film. Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes and nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Picture at the Oscars, Shoplifters is a much higher profile picture than Nobody Knowns. Yet it often plays like a slickly produced (read: better funded) revision of that earlier work. Shoplifters is a little less patient, a little more formalist, and a lot more blatant in its themes about the unconventional shapes families form in poverty & crisis, but the overall effect is just as tenderly devastating here as it was in Nobody Knows. I think I even slightly preferred the less documentarian approach here, if not only because Nobody Knows is so punishingly somber while this one is more open to notes of sweetness & sentimentality even if both films share in the same grim themes. Either way, I can’t help but think of the two films as complimentary companions, which makes me suspect a wider knowledge of Kore-eda’s catalog at large could only improve my appreciation for either.
The most immediately noticeable difference between Nobody Knows & Shoplifters is that the latter film is vastly more expansive. This is literally true in terms of cast & setting, as almost all of Nobody Knows is suffocatingly confined to a single apartment populated by a small cast of ragged children, afraid of being found out by the outside world. Shoplifters, by contrast, features a makeshift-family of all ages who have to leave their own cramped living space to earn money & food to sustain the collective household through whatever meager means they can manage: shoplifting (duh), construction jobs, factory shifts, sex work, emotional grifts, etc. This opens the cast & locations to a much wider view of poverty-line Tokyo, and also necessitates a more tightly scripted storytelling approach (Nobody Knows feels as if it were patiently constructed out of meticulously edited children’s improv). Shoplifters’s expansion of the previous film’s tones & methods also extends to its camera work & emotional effect. No longer constrained to capturing spontaneous moments in a confined apartment, the camera is free to move in sweeping, energizing maneuvers that match the thrill of the characters’ high-risk/low-reward “shopping” trips. Those characters were also allowed to experience the full range of loving, familial emotions before the goings get toughest, rather than lowly rotting in steady decline.
In addition to Shoplifters’s slicker production aesthetic & expansive emotional palette, it’s a film that also finds Kore-eda willing to blatantly explain his themes in-dialogue. Throughout the film, characters in its makeshift family of near-homeless pariahs discuss in plain language that the familial bonds we choose are much stronger than the ones we’re born into. It’s not enough to demonstrate that community & solidary are the only saving graces for these victims of capitalism; they also have to reinforce the legitimacy of their chosen bonds by insistently using the terms “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “brother,” and “grandma” as if they were a traditional, blood-related family unit rather than a loose collection of societal castaways with no recourse but each other. As clearly stated & straightforward as the themes of unconventional chosen families can be, however, there’s still plenty of room for nuance & subtlety in individual characters’ personalities & histories. The world has been tough on these discarded souls, weighing them down with domestic abuse, economic exploitation, and pure deep-in-the-gut hunger. It’s a burden that’s made them understandably cutthroat & cynical, not the usual saintly saps you’d expect in this kind of drama. The familial bonds they form in crisis are heartfelt & sentimental, but the characters remain defensive, sardonic street toughs as individuals, which benefits the movie greatly as a character study and opens it to a more intricate, dense portrait of modern poverty than what the plainly-explained themes in the dialogue might suggest.
Its likely insulting to both Shoplifters & Nobody Knows as individual works that I cannot discuss their merits without comparing & contrasting them against each other. I still find the exercise unavoidable, as it clearly illustrates a growth in craft & sentiment from Kore-eda while also establishing a baseline for his political & emotional preoccupations as an auteur. Even though they’re not connected as sequels and the makeshift families they profile take remarkably different shapes, they still sit with me as sister films, bonding in unconventional ways. It’s a bond that strengthens each film as isolated works, as it puts both of their accomplishments in sharper relief, which only makes me want to see more films in the larger Kore-eda family.