Shoplifters fits neatly among Kore-eda’s increasingly formidable filmography while simultaneously representing a major step forward.
Few could have predicted that Shoplifters, the latest family drama from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, would win the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, if only because it felt like the overly “safe” decision amid a crop of more rigorous contenders. Throughout his career, Kore-eda has been compared (both fairly and unfairly) to Yasujiro Ozu and Steven Spielberg, combining the stylistic and thematic concerns of the former and mainstream appeal of the latter. He’s also been accused of being “too Western,” a criticism shared by fellow countryman Haruki Murakami. Inherent in these critiques is the notion that “mainstream appeal” or “Western” style precludes any sense of formal or aesthetic singularity, a faulty idea evinced by the way Shoplifters remains austere and measured even in its most lighthearted moments. Among the director’s most accomplished works, the film fits neatly among his increasingly formidable filmography while simultaneously representing a major step forward.
The Japanese title literally translates to Shoplifting Family, a cutesy moniker that undermines the sadness and devastation at the core of the film. That said, the film is also joyful, sometimes miraculously so, and there’s a Dickensian quality in Kore-eda’s depiction of life on the margins. The story follows a year in the life of married couple Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura Andô) and Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky, a Kore-eda regular) and their family of small-time grifters. Poor and only occasionally employed, the couple provide for the family with wares stolen by the couple and their son, Shota (Jyo Kairi). They have their process down pat, and abide by the dubious yet curiously noble notion that nothing in a store belongs to anyone personally and therefore is up for grabs. One winter evening on the way home from another successful run, father and son find a five-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), hiding in an alleyway. Upon realizing the length of her neglect, the Shibatas decide to take her in and raise her as their own. (“It’s not kidnapping if you don’t demand a ransom,” claims Osamu in another curious twist of criminal logic.) Things are complicated further when Yuri is reported missing by her actual parents.
Kore-eda is a nuanced observer of the dynamics and dimensions of families, nuclear and makeshift alike. He brings compassion and sincerity to the complexity and often incongruous nature of family life, an experience that can be simultaneously strong and fragile, tight-knit and fractured. The particular precariousness of the Shibata family unit, which is rounded out by Osamu’s younger sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and Nobuyo’s elderly mother, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), is revealed methodically throughout Shoplifters as Kore-eda reveals (and omits) certain aspects of their behavior and personalities. If you’re looking for it, here is where you’ll find the formal rigor of a more typical “Palme d’Or” film as the director marries narrative style and character interplay with remarkable skill and concision, but Kore-eda, perhaps giving in to his Spielbergian side, never attempts anything at the expense of warmth or humor or sentiment. The film is thoroughly crowd-pleasing even as it imparts an uncompromising aesthetic vision.
Part of that vision has to do with what the audience brings to the table. Moviegoers are capable of filling in the blanks — we see images of the Shibata family sharing the same tiny, decrepit roof and make what we feel like are safe assumptions about their shared history and how they relate to one another. In Shoplifters, rather than spend time explaining the family’s past or how they came into poverty, Kore-eda treats us to scenes that illustrate how they feel in the moment and what they’re willing to do to preserve their bond going forward. The director’s previous looks at families (Our Little Sister, After the Storm) explore traumas that linger from a disastrous past; Shoplifters approaches that conflict from the other side, honing in on the unique anxieties of an uncertain future. For the Shibatas, that means truly living in the moment, and rather than adhere to a strict plot, Kore-eda unfurls the story through a series of casual vignettes to express how committed the family is to preserving their happiness. Shoplifters uses the passing seasons to beautifully convey the progression of time, but it also has the exhilarating effect of continuously unfolding in a brilliant, boundless present tense.
And yet the film is a little tougher than it initially appears. It’s certainly darker than Our Little Sister, After the Storm and even Nobody Knows, a social-realist drama that shares the same gritty, street-level milieu as Shoplifters. The Shibatas’ “adoption” of Yuri, though perhaps romantic in a literary sense, imbues the narrative with a tension that gradually eats away at the idyllic splendor before culminating in a melodramatic reversal in perspective. It turns out that Osamu and Nobuyo’s criminal behavior is a tad more severe than just petty theft and illicit child-rearing, and Kore-eda positions their lies as both a necessary evil of family life and symptomatic of society’s ills. The dramatic stakes at the center of Shoplifters exist in the adult characters’ struggle to reconcile their needs with the needs of their family, as well as the needs of a broader community. The family takes considerable measures to build and sustain world of their own making only to find themselves helplessly fixed to society at large, a unique tragedy rendered here in tender, deeply humanist terms.
The biggest knock on Shoplifters is Kore-eda’s persistent rehashing of the film’s central themes, a habit he’s exhibited throughout his career. The characters are prone to bluntly articulating ideas that are already evinced in the director’s filmmaking, like when Hatsue explains that choosing a family, as opposed to being born into a family, creates a tighter bond. Still, these are some of the most fleshed-out characters he’s ever put on screen, thanks in part to a cast capable of supplying the kind of interior emotion that suggests their characters exist outside the confines of Kore-eda’s frame, and that their tribulations stem from apparatuses of power beyond their control. The proof is in a monologue delivered by Nobuyo late in the film, in which the director takes an Ozu-esque shot—a medium close-up angled directly toward the actor’s face—and opens up a pathway toward empathy. Surrounded by the trembling piles of stolen junk littering the ramshackle Shibata home, Nobuyo’s face, captured by the camera’s unbroken gaze, suggests the fallout of a foundation long since collapsed.