The Netflix debate: In a world without 'Roma' would 'Shoplifters' have won an Oscar?

Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda says it's 'impossible to know' if his film might have beaten 'Roma' at the Oscars, if Netflix films had been barred

Kore-eda Hirokazu, director of SHOPLIFTERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
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Audiences in Abu Dhabi will have the chance to watch the Cannes Palme d'Or-winning film Shoplifters when it plays as part of the CineMAS underground film festival at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saturday, April 20.

Directed by Japanese auteur ­Hirokazu Kore-eda, 56, the film is about a pair of thieves, Osamu and Shota, who take a neglected young girl, Yuri, home for dinner. When they find evidence that Yuri has been abused, the family of Osamu and Shota decide to house her themselves, and in the following months she's taught how to shoplift. Yuri is content with her new circumstance in downtown Tokyo because it's the first time she has been provided with a loving home.

Ando Sakura, Sasaki Miyu and Lily Franky in SHOPLIFTERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Kore-eda uses these unusual circumstances to query what being part of a family means. Is a blood relationship what makes a family? Or is guardianship and affection more important? These questions have been a recurring theme of the director's oeuvre in the 13 fictional feature films he has made since his stunning narrative debut, After Life, in 1998. Before that, Kore-eda was making documentaries. As a result of his Cannes win, his work is currently being given a full retrospective at the British Film Institute in London.   

"When I made Like Father, Like Son, the question I was posing to myself is what constitutes a family: is it the time we spend together or is it blood?" Kore-eda tells The National through a Japanese translator. "In Shoplifters I wanted to further that question, that notion of whether something like a community that is beyond blood can work?"

There are profound consequences for orphans in Japan because of this emphasis on blood ties being the key component of any family, Kore-eda says. "The importance put on blood relationships is one of the reasons that we don't have many foster families in Japan. That is something I wanted to take up in this film."

In researching, the director went to facilities where abandoned children are sent in Japan. "Because we don't have an advanced foster care system they have no place to go," he says. "So these places just fill up with kids who have been abused and then they are returned to their abusive parents. Of course they get abused again and then sent back to the facility. It's a vicious cycle."

Lily Franky and Jyo Kairi in SHOPLIFTERS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Kore-eda uses the rupture of the family unit to highlight how Japanese culture and society has changed in modern times. “In recent years the Japanese economy has been going downhill so there is a bigger class divide then when I was a kid,” he explains. “Back then, everyone was middle class in Japan and now there are people who fall through the safety net. Many families now rely upon the pension of the elders and so when they die, they do not report on their deaths so that the family could still receive the financial aid. That became a big social issue across Japan.”

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 19:  Director Hirokazu Koreeda poses with the Palme d'Or award for 'Shoplifters' (Manbiki Kazoku) at the photocall the Palme D'Or Winner during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 19, 2018 in Cannes, France.  (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

At the Oscars, Shoplifters lost out to Alfonso ­Cuaron's Roma in the Best Foreign Film category. And, as we've reported extensively, Roma was effectively barred from competing at Cannes because of the festival's ban on Netflix films. So, would Shoplifters have won the Palme d'Or if Roma had been allowed to compete? As far as Kore-eda is concerned, it's a moot point. "It's impossible to know," he says. And that is that. 

Because Kore-eda makes quiet, contemplative movies set in Japan, his filmmaking style is often compared to that of legendary director Yasujiro Ozu. It's a comparison he is pleased to hear, but not one he entirely agrees with: "More than Ozu, the master who I always mention as an inspiration for my filmmaking is Ken Loach, the way he has a perspective of society and individuals in a society. I hope my perspective is closer to Loach."

There are other things outside of filmmaking that tie Kore-eda to Loach. One is a distrustfulness of the motives behind government honours and awards. In 1977, Loach famously turned down an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II, arguing, "It's all the things that I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest."

And after winning the Palme d'Or, arguably the biggest prize in cinema outside of the Oscars, and becoming the first Japanese director to do so for 21 years, Kore-eda turned down an invitation from the Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture to celebrate his victory with an award. He laughs when I ask him about his refusal to attend the ceremony.

"Well it may look very daft for me to reject this acknowledgement from the Japanese government, but the truth is, politicians, maybe not only in Japan, try to use artists for their own purpose. I felt they were trying to use me."

He rallies against the Japanese culture minister using a speech at the Tokyo Film Festival to argue that movies can serve the image of Japan to the world. "I think it's not good, you must always keep a stance between politics and cultures," argues Kore-eda. "I think I keep my integrity and I'm still filming what I want to film. But with every new movie, I'm always careful not to try and make the same pattern of filmmaking."

Kore-eda's next movie, his 14th narrative feature, The Truth, will be a big departure for him as it's his first to be made outside of Japan. Shot in France, it stars ­Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche as an estranged mother-­daughter duo whose relationship is further tested when the actress mother releases her memoir. Ethan Hawke also features as the husband of the daughter.

Kore-eda says he wants to take a closer look at the film industry and what success means. It’s good timing, as success is a subject he knows a lot more about following his big win at Cannes.

'Shoplifters' will be screened at CineMAS, Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saturday, April 20, 7pm. For more information about the festival, visit