Shoplifters (2018)

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Direction: Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

The imposing filmography of Japanese Hirokazu Koreeda just became richer with the addition of Shoplifters, an intelligent, fully formed piece of cinema conceived with as much filmic art as emotional insight. The family topic is recurrent in Koreeda’s explorations, with dramas such as Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father Like Son (2013) being very much recommended. It was precisely the latter film that inspired the director to write Shoplifters, based on the question ‘what makes a family?’

Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, the story follows a quirky family struggling with poverty during the peak of the Japanese recession. The father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), hates to work in the freezing cold and spends time with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), instructing him safe techniques to shoplift goods in small grocery stores. Shota is not his real son; he was taken from a car at a very young age. Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a laundry employee, say they saved him from negligent parents. The family lives under the roof of a goodhearted elder woman, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), who, additionally, helps them financially via her late husband’s pension. Rounding out the group of misfits is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a club hostess who is very close to Hatsue.

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The limiting economical factor doesn't refrain Osuamu and Nobuyo from ‘adopting’ Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little neighbor girl psychologically traumatized by abusive parents. Without notice, their happiness is suddenly at risk due to several agents. The girl’s disappearance is somehow reported on the TV; Hatsue dies suddenly right after the couple becomes jobless; and Shota starts to inquire in his head about what’s wrong and what’s right.

Stressing family bonds, Koreeda expands his realistic vision, procuring a dichotomy that is equally complex and questionable. Genuine moments of rapture and love found within the improvised family oppose to the stressful atmosphere the kids are subjected in their real parents’ households. In the case of Shota, the uncertainty about his real past and family persist after the credits roll.

Beautifully shot and brimming with precious humane details, the film is always gentle in tone. Nothing surprising here since Koreeda is a creative storyteller that doesn’t need to make a fuss to clearly bring his point of view. The strong social consciousness elevates a story that kind of disturbs in its final phase by exposing some shocking dark secrets. This near masterpiece made me think for long periods of time, meaning that its message and purpose were conveyed with a glorious sense of accomplishment.

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The Third Murder (2018)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has been showing his brilliance with contemplative, emotionally rich drama films such as “Nobody Knows”, “Still Walking”, “I Wish”, “Like Father Like Son”, and “After the Storm”, all of them deeply related to family.

His latest, “The Third Murder”, deviates from this concentrative emotional paths, being a crime thriller coldly steeped in the courtroom, yet not eschewing the family side. It stars Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori, a senior attorney tasked with defending Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a man from Hokkaido accused to slay and then burn with gasoline his former boss. The case seems impossible to win since Misumi had served jail time 30 years before due to another murder.

Misumi promptly confesses the crime when arrested, pointing out his motives for such an evil act. He had been fired a few months before, started to drink heavily, and was in desperate need of money. Hence, the case falls in the robbery-murder category. Shigemori, whose father is also a veteran lawyer who defended this same client in the previous conviction, ponders the best strategy to get him life in prison instead of the death penalty. However, and despite the efforts of his legal representatives, Misumi keeps changing his story, which becomes strangely related to the victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), a teenager who limps just like his own estranged daughter. The uncertainty impels us to search for a truth that remains opaque, but not long enough to allow surprise. 

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Some more uncertainty is thrown in with the rumor that the victim’s wife had hired Misumi to kill her husband in a criminal conspiracy in order to get his life insurance money. Nevertheless, the reality is very different and we find Sakie willing to testify in court to save the detainee. 

The long, well-staged conversations between Shigemori and his client are often depicted with stationary face-to-face close-ups and medium shots with occasional juxtaposing techniques using the glass that separates them in the interrogation room. 

Impeccably shot and edited, “The Third Murder” follows the sinuous trails and tonal bleakness associated with the genre. Still, it has a fluctuating grip, lacking any sort of bright final punch that could have made it memorable. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting new directions and Koreeda should be praised for his courage. Notwithstanding, his inspiration and originality find a more suitable vehicle in the gentle, human dramas that everyone can relate to.

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After The Storm (2016)

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Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Country: Japan

Throughout his extraordinary career, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has demonstrated tremendous sensibility to depict family dramas. Gracious works such as "Nobody Knows" (2004), "Still Life" (2008), "I Wish" (2011) and "Like Father Like Son" are considered socially influential within the Japanese new wave cinema.
"After the Storm" brings us a richly detailed story that involves family generations and is surrounded by strong emotional depth, naturalistic settings, and considerable amounts of sorrowfulness and optimism.

The story revolves around the divorced Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a crooked private detective and struggling writer who, in his thirties, still didn’t find the financial stability to pay for his child support. Despite the success of his debut novel, Ryota tries to overcome a persistent condition known as writer’s block. His inability to provide for the household wasn’t the only reason why his more mature and hard-working wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), decided to leave him. Ryota, wasn’t paying too much attention to their little son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), and keeps living in the fantasy that one day he’ll win the lottery, squandering all his money in tickets and gambling. In this aspect, he takes after his father whose recent death made Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), his mother, rejoice again with life and freedom.

When another typhoon is approaching, nobody seems to give it real importance, however, this will be a special occasion to reunite the family in the matriarch’s cozy place.
Alternating between perspicacious and dramatic, Yoshiko understands very well the situation of her family. She wants them to reconcile but doesn’t take sides in the dispute. On one hand, she accepts Ryota as he is, alleging it was his father’s genes that made him like that; on the other hand, she always loved her daughter-in-law for being strong, caring, and a wonderful mother. More than anything, she respects their decisions. 
Her vision of the men, in general, becomes clear during a casual conversation with Kyoko: “why men are unable to love the present? They keep pursuing what they’ve lost or dreaming beyond their reach”.
Shingo is the one who gets confused with the situation, relying on his grandmother, a true idol, to comfort and pamper him.

After the Storm” is an honest drama that doesn’t search for rapid solutions but rather hope. Koreeda composes the picture in a civilized and introspective manner, after engendering a script that appropriately describes our modern times. It evaluates the weight of responsibility in addition to the pursuit of personal dreams and its repercussions within the household.

Despite the seriousness of the story, the film exhibits a funny side, particularly through the compulsive, untamable, and even childish posture of Ryota. Haragumi’s subtle musical score worked perfectly with Yutaka Yamazaki’s endearing cinematography, showing an intriguing ability of almost pacifying the problems of the characters, who felt real and authentic. 
Unobtrusive techniques, human awareness, and narrative accessibility remain strong features in Koreeda’s simple yet effective filmmaking style.