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Prize-Winning ‘Shoplifters’: Japan’s PM Hates This Movie Because It’s Just Too True

The warm-hearted story of a loose-knit ‘family’ struggling to survive is based on field research into Japanese poverty, and inspired by an abused child.

TOKYO—Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for "Shoplifters,” a critically acclaimed family drama about a poverty-stricken quasi-family that manages to eke out a living via petty larceny and fraud.  The film is now playing widely in Japan, but there were moments when it looked like it wouldn’t. Japanese film distributors often shun anything with political connotations, and the government here just hates this movie.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working for years to promote “Cool Japan” and anything Japanese or anyone Japanese, that does well.  Everyone expected the director would at least get a congratulatory call from the ever-opportunistic Abe. Instead, Kore-eda has been more or less snubbed by the prime minister and reviled by Abe’s cronies and ideological allies.

What is it about this heart-warming film that gets the cold shoulder from the ruling class?

The Story Behind The Story

At the center of the film is a strangely connected family that lives in a ramshackle traditional wooden Japanese house, with tatami mats, no insulation and clutter everywhere. The rest of the neighborhood has been taken over by tall ugly condominiums, which in Japan are unironically called “mansions.”

Explaining how this makeshift family is connected would spoil the film, so we’ll be a little obscure here. The father is a day-time construction worker, while the mother works at a factory ironing clothes. Grandmother is illegally living off of her deceased ex-husband’s pension. The oldest son contributes to the family income by helping Dad shoplift food, shampoo, drinks and other essentials so the family can survive. The eldest daughter earns up to ¥3,000 ($32) an hour by working at a so-called JK peep shop, where customers pay money to watch and talk to high school girls dressed in skimpy clothes.

They are a happy family of five, until the father and son discover a hungry and shivering little girl outside of an apartment.They take her home and feed her for the evening.When they discover that she’s been physically abused by her real parents, they decide to adopt her. Her real parents never even report her as missing.

As the film gradually unfolds, you began to understand how these “family” members are all connected and the secrets they keep from each other. It also shows something very rare in Japanese films and in modern Japanese life — an almost happy family. The father comes home for dinner, he talks to his son and daughter. Mom and Dad have mutual affection, they have conversations with each other —and when the kids are away, they even have rambunctious sex. (Some surveys show that 50 percent of married couples in Japan are sexless.)  When the boy reads a book out loud, the family listens.

The movie poses a question that is a constant theme in Kore-eda’s film: what really makes a family? Is the family we choose more important than the one we are born with?

There is a touching scene in the movie where the mother sits on the porch with the newest member of her family, the abused little girl, and tells her, “When people say that they’re hitting you because they love you, that’s a lie. This is what you do when you love someone,” and she proceeds to wrap her arms around the pensive little girl, hugging her tightly with a blissful smile on her face and soon the little girl is smiling as well. It’s a tiny sweet moment in a film in which we are sometimes surprised by unexpected flashes of compassion.  

The house is a mess, their table manners are terrible, shoplifting is a crime, but the film still manages to make the viewer come to love the characters — even while everyone knows that this transient happiness can’t last. And what makes the movie even more poignant is that it is based somewhat on real events.

Earlier this month, Kore-eda screened the film at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and briefly held a press conference. He prefaced his remarks by wryly smiling and acknowledging that the film had created more controversy than he would have imagined.

The Daily Beast took the opportunity to ask him how he put the movie together. “The film that you made is reportedly based on real life events — that there really was a shoplifting family who stole fishing poles — how did you do research for the screenplay and who did you meet in that process?”

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Kore-eda, took a few moments to think on the question and then replied, “The story is not based on one particular actual event but I did refer to real life incidents revolving around families in the past few years. I wanted to depict a family that was bound by something other than blood ties, and the idea of a family bound by crime was the first thing that came to mind.  So I looked at actual family related crimes. The first was pension fraud, where children of the elderly would not report the death of their parents in order to continue to live off of their parents’ pension.

“I wanted this family to be connected to each other, not out of emotional but financial needs,” Kore-eda continued. “Shoplifting families were not something I had researched. I came across an article in the papers about a court case of such a family. There were a few lines that briefly mentioned how the only stolen items that the family had kept without pawning were some fishing rods…. The first thing that came to mind was a scene of a father and son going fishing with the stolen fishing poles. We have this scene towards the end of the film but it was one of the first images that came to my mind.”

Kore-eda, in the course of doing research for the movie, also spoke with non-profit organizations and visited a care home for abused children. It was this visit that stuck in his mind. “While we were there, kids started to come back from school and I asked one little girl what she was studying at school. She pulled out her Japanese class textbook from her backpack and suddenly started reading Leo Lionni’s Swimmy out loud to us. The facility staff scolded her, ‘Everyone’s busy, you shouldn’t bother them,’ but she refused to listen and read to us the story from beginning to end. When she finished and we all clapped for her, she beamed at us with such joy. It was in that moment I thought, maybe what she really wants is to read that out loud to her parents who she doesn't get to live with. After that, the face of this little girl reading to us haunted me and I wrote the scene in which the boy reads his textbook out loud right away.”

If you aren’t familiar with Swimmy, it’s the tale of a tiny black fish living among a school of red fish until all his brothers and sisters are eaten by a big tuna. He escapes because he swims fast and eventually finds another school of fish to live with. By teaching them to all swim together, so they appear to be a big fish, they scare off predators and manage to live happily ever after. The metaphorical meaning in the movie should be apparent.

The Cold Shoulder

It was shortly after “Shoplifters” won the grand prize at Cannes that the French newspaper Le Figaro first noticed Prime Minister Abe did not make any congratulatory calls to the director, with the catchy headline, “A Family Affair: The Embarrassment Prize for the Japanese Government.”

The publication blamed his silence on the fact that Kore-eda had openly criticized the Abe administration, which is true. Kore-eda has participated in demonstrations against the strongly disliked Peace Preservation Act, which would allow Japan to fight in wars overseas and was passed under Abe. Kore-eda has also openly criticized Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party for pressuring the Japanese media to not air critical coverage of their candidates. However, those probably are not the only reasons the film is reviled by Abe supporters.

In some ways, Abe’s silence seems very odd when you consider how quickly he jumps on board to congratulate Japanese citizens, and even people of Japanese descent, for their achievements. He even personally congratulated Kazuo Ishiguro for winning the Nobel prize for literature, despite Ishiguro having lived most of his life in England, not being a Japanese citizen, and speaking Japanese very poorly.

On the other hand, this isn’t the first time Abe’s silence has been conspicuous. Last year, when the NPO International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) won the Nobel Peace Prize for its activities, Japan’s atomic bomb survivors were ecstatic, but kamikaze movie fan Abe and the Japanese government were silent. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs only released a comment two days later. When ICAN Executive Director Beatrice Fihn came to Japan, the Prime Minister snubbed her, citing dubious “scheduling conflicts.”  

After numerous reports in the Japanese and foreign media which lampooned Abe’s petty refusal to recognize Kore-eda’s work, on June 7, Education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, after being questioned in parliament, said he would like to invite Kore-eda to come to the ministry for a celebration, adding that, “I’m not sure he would come.”

Kore-eda responded on his homepage the same day, under a heading, “Congratulations” gently declining the late offer. He explained that he was refusing all awards or decorations from local government bodies, pointing out, “There was a time when movies were made to align with ‘national interest’ and ‘national policy’; when you consider and reflect on how that brought about great unhappiness and misfortune in the past, perhaps the best thing to do is keep a graceful distance from state powers.”

Kore-eda has said in interviews before that unlike Germany, which has reconciled with its Nazi past, Japan has failed to address its own atrocities committed during the war and its own shameful history. While Kore-eda has been restrained in his criticism of Abe,  “The Walt Disney of Japan” legendary animated film director Hayao Miyazaki, has been brutally frank in expressing dislike and disdain for the hawkish leader. Miyazaki has said, “He [Abe] thinks he will go down in history as a great man who changed Japan’s [pacifist] constitution. Tomfoolery. ”

Not Cool Japan, but Cruel Japan

While Abe has been silent about the film, his political allies have lashed out at the movie and the director. They have accused Kore-eda of promoting shoplifting, condoning crime, and making political propaganda.

It would seem apparent that  Kore-eda isn’t making a heavy handed political statement in the film; he’s simply showing a side of Japan that the ruling coalition would prefer people didn’t see.  It’s not a film depicting an anime world, or a shiny Japan full of robot helpers, amazing technological advances, teenage girls singing pop songs in skimpy clothes, or a nation flourishing under Abenomics. It’s one of the most accurate depictions of modern hardships we’ve ever seen on screen.

One in six children in Japan now lives in poverty. Half of all single mother households do as well. The number of people who have regular employment with all the benefits it carries has been declining for years.  Death by overwork (karoshi) is a chronic problem that won’t go away and Abe’s latest “labor reforms” are certainly going to make life harder for anyone who isn’t a CEO. In fact, they legalize 100 hours of overtime a month, 20 hours more than what the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare deems dangerous. Some jobs will have overtime pay removed entirely. Technically, you can’t work to death if no one keeps track of your hours, or has responsibility for them, so perhaps that’s one way to eliminate the problem.

The movie references eloquently the real problems of part-time workers. It shows what happens when the father injures himself on the job––no substantial compensation, no support, no unemployment benefits–not enough of an injury. In the movie, the mother’s time on the job is gradually reduced when the company brings in another staple of Abenomics, “work-sharing.”  When the son asks his father to explain what the term means, he jokes, “It means we all get a little bit poorer together.” The mother is eventually laid off during restructuring. Yes, the film is fiction — but the events it’s based on are not. The film’s depiction of how poorly cases of child abuse are handled in Japan is also sadly true.

Ironically, on the day of the Kore-eda press conference, Tokyo police arrested a married couple on suspicion of neglect resulting in the death of the mother's 5-year-old daughter. The little girl left behind a notebook pleading with her parents to stop abusing her, promising to work harder. The child had been previously taken into protective custody and the police in another prefecture had twice recommended her stepfather be prosecuted for abuse. The authorities kept returning her to her “real parents” until they finally killed her. That’s how the Japanese government protects children.

It’s no wonder Abe dislikes this film. It’s a vivid picture of the misery in Japan he and his ruling coalition have helped create. It’s probably hard to congratulate the man who reminds the world that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and a Hinomaru flag where your heart should be.

Who Was The Film Made For?

At the foreign journalists club press conference, Kore-eda was asked again if it was a political film, was it targeting a politician or a leader?  Kore-eda’s responded as follows:

“Not at all. In my TV director days, a senior director told me to make things for one specific person, that even if your audience gets bigger, you should always make things for that particular individual [in mind]. It could be your mother or a grandmother or a friend but by doing so your message will reach a bigger audience. That was when I was in my twenties and I’ve followed this advice ever since. I realize with this question, that I made this film for the little girl who read the Swimmy story to me. This film is for her.”