How Hirokazu Kore-eda Made Two of 2018’s Best Films With ‘Shoplifters’ and ‘The Third Murder’

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 legal drama The Third Murder is shot mostly through panes of prison glass. In tackling the weighty subject of Japan’s death penalty, the director imbues his meditative mystery with a distinctly icy chill, which makes for a fascinating contrast with his follow-up (and Cannes Palme d’Or winner) Shoplifters, a personal NYFF favourite. The latter is a warm, tender film about family, taking place mostly inside a lively and crowded home. It could not look or feel more different from its predecessor, and yet, it plays like the perfect B-side.

In crafting two wildly divergent social criticisms, one tackling the Japanese legal system while the other explores the very concept of family, Kore-eda completes what feels like a masterful dual-experiment, approaching tales of abuse and found family from wildly opposing vantage points. The Third Murder is now streaming on Amazon while Shoplifters is on the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. And they’re two of the best films you’ll see this year.

A Shoplifting Family

The film’s Japanese title, Manbiki kazoku, means “shoplifting family,” which accurately explains the premise without tipping its hand. None of its characters are related, by law or by blood, but they live under the same dilapidated roof. Lily Franky plays the family’s kindly male figurehead, an unnamed man in a perpetual state of midlife crisis, attempting to capture some “cool,” detached affect, even if it’s simply “cool dad.” Jyo Kairi plays Shota, his young son — or rather, the boy he rescued when he was only a baby. The duo opens the film amidst a highly coordinated shoplifting routine, shot with the verve of a Hollywood heist, only more melodic and intimate, involving knowing, protective glances as they steal food and shampoo.

There’s a musicality to absolutely everything in the film, from petty thieving at corner stores to conversations around a crowded dinner table. The warmth with which Kore-eda paints his characters — adults and children alike — speaks to an understanding of what the bonds of love can and ideally should feel like, even in dire circumstances. The characters, sometimes merely by wiping the sweat reflecting off their skin, feel complete and alive.

Sakura Ando plays Nobuyo, the wife of Lily Franky’s unnamed man, a laundry-worker who steals pins and other knick-knacks she finds in people’s pockets. They live with the elderly Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), a mischievous grandmother with a mysterious income, and with a young girl in her late teens or early twenties, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), whose well-to-do family thinks she’s studying abroad, though she really moonlights as a private dancer.

Each member of this adorable clan has their own little secrets, some of which they keep from to themselves — Shota sleeps in a tiny crawlspace he likes to keep private; his “father” never reveals his name — and some of which are shared between them and hidden from the outside world, like inside jokes or secrets to their shoplifting trade. What they share runs deeper than what they hide; their casual, loving camaraderie even within their cramped living space is a delight to behold.

Kore-eda returns from his Cinemascope experiment in The Third Murder (his rare widescreen effort), compressing the frame once more in order to keep the family in close proximity, though their love, and more importantly their capacity for love, leads them to a new collective secret. Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl barely old enough to speak, sits outside her family’s home (nearby our main characters’ hidden abode) as her parents yell and fight. She has scars on her arm from a hot iron. They seem intentional, like the scars Nobuyo hides under her sleeves, which makes Nobuyo steal Yuri away to protect her.

The rest of the family is reluctant to keep Yuri around at first, especially Shota, whose sibling jealousy suddenly kicks in now that there’s a new child at home — as much as Shoplifters focuses on bonds that go beyond traditional family, it also blends them with the language of the conventionally familial — though they eventually decide that “kidnapping” her is for her own good. After all, she feels safest with them too; is it really kidnapping if she wants to stay? They seem to think so, and she fits right in to Kore-eda’s neatly composed tableaus, like when the whole family peeks out of their secret house to watch fireworks, sticking their heads out in single file like something out of a comforting children’s cartoon.

Each scene in the film is focused squarely on relationships, from how the characters interact with one another in the frame, sleeping in close-quarters and imbuing each instant-noodle dinner with the excitement of a lavish ball, to how they protect each other on their various shoplifting missions, revealing a deep understanding and mutual trust through secret codes and gestures. They are, for all intents and purposes, a family, much more so than any of the blood relatives they’ve ever had, but those tasked with protecting the law as it’s written might not see it that way.

The Rule of Law

Where Shoplifters begins with a playful, almost exciting father-son trip to steal from a supermarket, The Third Murder begins with a static shot of a man being beaten over the head in the dead of winter. From then on, every frame, even during scenes set indoors, recalls the harsh chill of the snowfall.

The Third Murder is a film that follows, for the most part, the standard framework of a murder mystery, unraveling alongside the psyche and morality of its lawyer lead, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama). When faced with digging to find the factual truth or manipulating it for the best legal defense, Shigemori often chooses the latter. His client Misuma (Kôji Yakusho) is on trial for killing his factory boss, and in Japan, murder during the committing of violent theft carries with it the penalty of death. Pre-meditated murder, however, is a different matter, especially when it’s confessed. The truth, as Shigemori sees it, is mere strategy.

The structure of law is the philosophy that Shigemori — a cynic with little care for people — clings to most. He hits wall after wall once Misuma starts to change his story, revealing tidbits of new information that, while introducing new elements to the tale, don’t seem to add up. The mystery of Misuma’s actions only deepens, as does the way Shigemori sees him. As he peers at Misuma through prison glass at different points in the film, he finds himself seated opposite everything from a soulless monster to a righteous vigilante to a redeemable grotesque depending on what he thinks he knows. The film frames them side by side, their reflections constantly imposed on one another, and after a while, the shifts in how Shigemori sees Misuma begin to alter the way Shigemori sees himself.

As the facts begin to change along with Misuma’s motivations, Shigemori questions what “truth” even is, in a society where morality is a treated as a written standard, setting up questions about the nature of “good” as it pertains to justice, guilt, criminality and morality as human constructs.

The Third Murder a loaded work about one man’s evolving philosophy. It’s about the monster he sees in himself when he views other men as monsters unworthy of life, and how the idea of redemption where it was once considered impossible changes his outlook. As Shigemori learns more about Misuma’s story, regardless of whether or not he agrees with it, he begins to recognize the humanity not only behind Misuma’s eyes, but behind his own, accepting that truth, even at its most malleable, has the capacity to be something hopeful.

trailer round-up shoplifters

Sides to a Coin

While the two films’ textures feel like products of entirely different artistic visions — cinematographer Kondo Ryuto places each film’s heart on its sleeve through colour and movement, or lack thereof — where they happen overlap is their intent. To elaborate on this would require a mild spoiler warning, though neither film is really rooted in surprise reveals. They’re rather spoiler-averse, if I’m being honest; it’s not surprises, but rather the way learned information impacts the characters that gives each story its strength.

The family in Shoplifters is eventually found out and separated. In the eyes of the law, they aren’t a family at all, despite being a unit built on love and trust; in one of the more touching scenes, Kirin Kiki’s Hatsue reflects on her life’s trajectory as her surrogate grandchildren frolic on the beach, detached from the harsh realities that would overpower them were they with their biological families.

One of the shoplifters ends up behind bars and, when visited by the others, speaks to them through a pane of glass, not unlike Misuma in The Third Murder. But where Misuma and Shigermori are framed in profile, reflecting off one another like warring (and shifting) intellectual ideals, the prison scenes in Shoplifters are more akin to those in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, shot mostly in close ups that maintain eye contact, filling the frame with personal intimacy. Those on either side of the glass, in this case, are connected by something more binding than facts, despite the lawyers introduced late in the film insisting otherwise.

Like Shoplifters, The Third Murder too reveals itself to be a story of an abused little girl, and the lengths people outside the legal (and even social) definition of family go to in order to protect them. In Shoplifters, we’re allowed to be a part of the family, but in The Third Murder, information comes to us in the form of confession, and we’re left to wrestle with its implications from the outside as a life hangs in the balance. The films may as well be mirrors to one another. Love takes center stage in Shoplifters and is dismembered by law; The Third Murder is told as if from the perspective of the law itself, bringing into question its foundations when it can’t stand up to (or even comprehend) actions driven by love.

This two-pronged approach, when looked back on as a whole, is an artistic statement that feels truly complete. Watch the films back to back, and you’re left with an understanding of both what’s at stake for the shoplifters and Misuma, and what it would take those around them — more importantly, what it would take us — to truly change.

Kore-eda, in consecutive works brought to life in vastly different styles, challenges the very bases of social structures as we understand them, whether legality as it pertains to punishment or family as it pertains to blood, or some entwined combination of all the aforementioned. He does so by rooting each story in deeply human instincts, centering on parents protecting surrogate daughters from inescapable abuse. Together, Shoplifters and The Third Murder question our fundamental understanding of ourselves as people, asking if our current ideas of family, law, and the foundations by which we govern each other can be truly just, if doing good is contingent on dismantling them.

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