Shoplifters: A Review
By Steph Brandhuber
February 2, 2019
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
WHILE JAPAN might be known the world over for its technological innovation and scientific advancements, according to The New York Times last year the country also emerged as the world’s most rapidly aging society. Japan’s focus on post-war economic growth in the 1960s and a more Western style of living meant that a nuclear family structure replaced the traditional Japanese multigenerational one. This meant that elderly relatives once promised protection and care from their children were suddenly isolated, living and eventually dying alone. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this year, challenges this portrait of a lonely, fragmented Japan and offers us instead a nuanced and intricately woven family drama filled with quiet gentleness and hard-hitting social commentary.
Lily Franky plays Osamu, a shifty Fagin-like man who lives with his extended family in jumbled squalor in one of Tokyo’s poorest neighborhoods. Though they are not all related, Osamu’s household resembles a real family—a wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a teenage daughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a grandmother, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and a young son, Shota (Kairi Jyo), all living sardined together in a ramshackle bungalow. Shota has claimed a small space for himself, but even his little sleeping area looks more like a cupboard than a bedroom. What “belongs to” them and what doesn’t is the underlying theme in Shoplifters, which opens with Osamu teaching Shota how to shoplift. Petty theft, we find out, is the family’s way of getting by. When it comes to stealing, they have one philosophy: if no one has laid claim to it yet, it’s there for the taking.
One day, as Osamu and Shotu return home from an evening of successful pilfering, they stumble upon a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sitting alone in the cold. They decide to bring her home. Nobuyo is skeptical about hosting the child, but eventually, they all welcome her and begin to teach her how to shoplift. Then, the news reports that the little girl has gone missing.
The film is made up of delicate brushstrokes; each smile, look, and verbal exchange layered with meaning and purpose. As Kore-eda carefully and deliberately unravels the film’s plot, what is revealed is a tight-knit family who depend on one another, even if the ties between them aren’t actually what they might first appear to be.
What makes Shoplifters such an enrapturing, beautiful watch is the way in which Kore-eda applies humor and sentimentality to an often-forgotten stratum of society. He subtly critiques Japan’s “gig” economy and the country’s labor conditions, and sheds light on how people come together as a unit within a wider, lonelier society. Perhaps most importantly though, Kore-eda examines what “family” really means and how it rises up in the face of poverty, oppression and governmental neglect. Through their struggles and faults, Osamu’s family bands together and helps each other, even when their own lives are on the brink of collapsing.
Shoplifters raises many questions, and offers no easy answers, about the world we live in, the traditions we have, and our identities. This is a film that is as powerful as it is compassionate, a moving portrait of the humanity and dignity of a group of scammers on the margins of society. ❖