The Japanese government, usually so quick to praise its national successes, was mysteriously silent when director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2018.  Kore-eda specialises in taking a long hard look at Japanese society – I Wish (see the review on this site here) is I think his best film and centres around the effect of a divorce on two brothers who are separated as a result and dream of being reunited by bullet train. Here he returns to the theme of poverty in his other much praised film Like Father, Like Sonand reprises Lily Franky as the father-figure, the film’s central character, Osama.

Osama officially works on a building site, but as the head of a large extended family struggles to make ends meet. He shoplifts the essentials shamelessly with his boy Shota (Kairi Jyo). His partner Noboyu (Sakura Andô), who works in a hotel laundry, does her bit by pocketing anything of value she finds; a younger girl, sister we assume, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) contributes to the family coffers by working as a peep show stripper, while the matriarch, Hatsue, played memorably by veteran actress Kirin Kiki, who died in September,puts the squeeze on her husband’s children, which she merrily gambles away in slot machines. Not your average family, by any measure.

One night on their way home from a shoplifting spree, Osama and Shota find a waif-like 5-year girl weeping in the cold. She bears the marks of beatings and is mute; in a rare lapse of compassion he adopts Juri (Miyu Sasaki) into this Fagin like gang of petty crooks. Despite a hue and cry, television appeals, and a wide-ranging police search, they change her name, cut her hair and keep their heads down to prevent her return to her abusive parents.

Juri hero-worships Shota, much to his dismay and to his jealousy – he preferred it when it was just him and Osama. Soon she is learning the trade, down to his secret finger-curling sign of the crime about to be committed. She is a willing accomplice, charming old shop-keepers while Shota’s fingers do the work.

You know this cannot last as you watch the ups, but mostly downs, of our little family. The fear of discovery – not only of being caught red-handed but of the abduction – and the precariousness of their amoral life is painstakingly and tenderly portraited. Yet there is a great sense of underlying menace. Kore-eda’s skill lies in the reveal – all is not what it seems and as the story unravels we question everything, especially the meaning of family which is at the nub of film.

Jiri’s adoption into a loving family can be interpreted as another sleight of hand to own a desirable object.  But you cannot argue with Noboyu’s logic when she says, ‘I found her. It was someone else who threw her away.’ What is it that really constitutes family – an abusive parent or a loving adopter?

The Japanese government would have been offended by this depiction of Japanese society at its lowest level in the recession: the unemployment; the desperation of its people to survive by whatever means necessary; the inherent dishonesty of many of its citizens, whether its flipping properties to avoid eviction or impersonating the dead to draw pensions. It’s all here in non-judgmental and beautifully crafted celluloid right up to the shocking denouement.

It well deserves its nomination for the best foreign language film, along with Roma, which I imagine will win, and Dogman, another gem from the maker of Gomorrah.

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