Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
15 | 2h 1min | Crime, Drama | 23 November 2018 (UK)
Humanistic, unforced and patient dissections of relationships are the stock in trade of Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda (Our Little Sister, Like Father, Like Son) and this new entry into his canon, a Cannes Palme d’Or winner, feels like a high water mark. It is a welcome new addition to what Kore-eda has called his ‘third phase’, where he focuses in more on the nature of family in modern Japan, questioning if familial bonds have the value culture and tradition has assigned to them, and teasing out the tensions that pull at the traditional mother/father structure. Shoplifters is a film that quietly asks provocative questions, but is never lacking for charm, well-earned poignancy, and even packs in a few twists.
The titular shopfliters are an engaging bunch, in large part thanks to superb casting choices and richly-drawn character dynamics (Kore-eda is also credited as the scrptwriter) that mostly play out in a charmingly cluttered and confined space. Osamu Shibata (the great Franky Lily, who also starred in Like Father, Like Son and is superb at playing irresolute ‘scammers’) is a Tokyo-based shoplifter par excellence, who ekes out a ramshackle but not necessarily unhappy existence in a tiny surbuban bungalow with his petty criminal ‘family’ unit. This mismatched unit is made up of Osamu as the patriarch and shoplifter-in-chief, his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando, a great foil to Lily as a more down-to-earth type), sex worker Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), teen boy Shota (Jyo Kairi), and the cheeky but world-weary ‘Grandmother’ who is played with much elegance by the legendary actress Kirin Kiri. I don’t usually pay too much attention to the production design of Kore-eda’s films, being more absorbed by the character drama, but the Shibata home really is a visual treat, being small and divided up by sliding panel doors in the Japanese fashion, but seemingly half the furniture and entire walls are built out of boxes and other pieces of junk gathered up by a lifetime of shoplifting. Watching these characters literally clamber over each and sometimes literally tripping over to negotiate such a cramped space provides a lot of comedy, but the house itself speaks to their characters and their relationships: messy, thrown together, colourful. Confining such diverse characters in one space (the living room is where most of the drama occurs) means plenty of opportunity for them to rub up against each other and expose the real secrets of the heart.
After a brief opening sequence where we see how good Osamu’s shoplifting game is (he and Shota have a well-established tag-team thing going on: one distracts, the other drops items into a well-placed bag), we are introduced to the element of change that disrupts this crime unit’s life, and starts a process by which more and more of our assumptions are disrupted. On their way back from another score, Osamu and Nobuyo discover a six year old girl - Juri (Sasaki Miyu) - in a bad state left home alone, and they decide to take her back to their dwelling. Osamu and Nobuyo are morally-aware enough to know the authorities will see this as kidnapping, but the bruises on the child’s body and the fact she wets the bed are classic symptoms of abuse, and give them a sense of moral justification to their law-breaking. But this seemingly impulsive act, and the fallout from it, start piling up some intriguing questions. Osamu and Nobuyo are not abusive to the girl, Nobuyo in particular is delicate with her, but Shota thinks nothing of starting to cheerily indoctrinate her into some of the basics of shoplifting: assigning her tasks suitable for her age and size, such as pulling out the power cords of door sensors so he can boost alarmed equipment. Shota is visibly uncomfortable with the girl being assigned to him on shoplifting raids, and what we initially think is just disgruntlement at a rookie girl being introduced into the mix is soon revealed to be a growing sense unease at the life of crime the children are being groomed for, with Shota no doubt seeing echoes of his own ‘rescuing’ in Juri. It turns out he isn’t really Osamu’s son, (there are hints of this before it is made clear, such as his refusal to use the term ‘dad’) and he is at an age where he is starting to question the moral framework Osamu has sold him (“nothing in the shop has an owner yet”) as well as the narrative of his own dramatic rescue. Was he really rescued out of a sense of duty by Osamu, or was he just a new recruit? When the boy starts to screw up various shoplifting raids, is it just teen rebellion, or a subconscious desire to get caught and end this life of criminality?
What Kore-Eda slowly builds for us is a fascinatingly nuanced portrait of a ‘family’ unit that is built not on the obligations of blood ties, but more on a cost-benefit analysis. As the film progresses, we learn more and more of the transactional relationships between the adults in the bungalow, and how what looks like a traditional family unit on the surface is instead more like a lifeboat for various members of the working class who have come together because they each provide something the other needs. Grandmother, for example, is quite possibly not related to any of the other characters at all despite how they refer to her, but her generous pension serves Osamu and Nobuyo well, and she is the legal owner of the house. But just when we start considering the idea that she is being ruthlessly exploited, we are shown how Grandmother is running her own scam; she regularly visits her dead husbands family in order to pay respects at his shrine and humbly pockets a substantial sympathy check every time. Barely is she out of her in-laws house when she is dropping the smiling humble granny act and flicking through the cash in the envelope. It is one of the funnier scenes in the film, but it leads us to wonder; if even Grandmother is running a scam, what does that imply about everyone else in the house? Are Osamu and Nobuyo even married? Is Aki really their older daughter, or another refugee? We have to build this complex picture from snatches of conversation both spoken to key characters and that that goes whispered behind their backs. A good deal remains guesswork until some startling last-act revelations.
And yet, as mismatched and misanthropic as this family of crime seem, and as problematic as it is to seemingly offer children a safe home in exchange for stealing, Kore-eda shows us that they all, fundamentally, get along. Shoplifting actually takes up little of the screen-time, with breathing space being given for us to soak up the day-to-day of mealtimes, beach trips, lovemaking and meals on the porch. There is good food on the table, laughter, play, and even Osamu and Nobuyo get to rekindle a long-dormant desire for sex. Whispered fragments from Juri suggest a terrifying and unhappy life of beatings and neglect, abuses she does not have to suffer anymore in Osamu’s house. Aki’s work depresses her, but she finds moments of comfort at night with Grandmother acting as her sounding board, and seems to be the one closest to her. In one of the film’s many grace notes, Grandmother herself is seen mouthing a quiet and unheard ‘thank you’ to the cluster of her ‘relatives’ as they splash about in the waters during a beach trip. It is thanks for the act of keeping her company during what could have been a lonely old age. Does it matter if the relationship to Osamu and the others is partly transactional? That is not to say Kore-eda’s film is endorsing kidnapping and robbery, but it seems to be he is asking if we need to be honest about how much familial bonds really count for, and if a more ruthless analysis of ‘what works for me’ might actually make for a more satisfying life. Maybe families would function better if we chose them.