The Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda is fascinated by what makes a family. Shoplifters, which came out last year, follows a poor couple living in modern Tokyo who regularly filch food to survive. At the start, it’s easy to assume that the old lady with whom they live, and the youngsters hanging around form a proper—if hard-up—nuclear family. Gradually, though, you realise they are a group of drifters brought together by circumstances. What starts off as heart-warming ends up macabre. They give shelter to an abused young girl, almost inadvertently kidnapping her; they go to extreme lengths to keep a death secret.
Koreeda’s work asks important questions: what does it mean to be a family—especially in Japan, which cleaves to more conservative norms than western countries? And how does poverty—more common in Japan that outsiders might think—twist social relations?
Such themes are longstanding in Japanese cinema. The filmmaker that Koreeda is most often compared with is Yasujirō Ozu, whose beautifully conceived films about post-war Japan also examine the intricate relations between parents and children, duty and freedom. Koreeda himself is wary of the comparison: “It’s interesting,” he has said, “but it troubles me when people say I’m like Ozu, because I’m not confident I understand Ozu.” In the same interview, though, he confesses to studying him closely, and there are certainly similarities not only of theme but of style. The cutaway shots to a flower or tree, the focus on faces, the slow narrative buildup leading to a quietly shocking conclusion.
All these are present in Koreeda’s 2004 film Nobody Knows, a companion piece to Shoplifters. (Following the BFI season dedicated to the auteur in the spring, Nobody Knows is now being released on DVD with three other early films under the title Of Flesh and Blood.) It is based loosely on the 1988 Sugamo case, where a group of children abandoned by their single mother was found living in squalor in Tokyo. Nobody Knows explores how this could have come about without the neighbours or other adults intervening. The mother, played by Japanese TV star You, has four children by four different…