At this point, it’s almost cliche to say that a Hirokazu Kore-eda film is a perceptive, moving look at family dynamics and the struggles of living in the modern world. But here we are again with his latest film, Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May. At least Kore-eda is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Working in many ways as a thematic extension of his previous films, Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), Shoplifters is charming, quiet, and occasionally devastating.
In the thrilling and wordless opening sequence, we meet Osamu (Lily Franky), who together with his son, Shota (Kairi Jo), cases a grocery store and goes about shoplifting various items throughout the store, seamlessly covering for his son and distracting employees as Shota just-as-professionally slips instant ramen and other food items into his backpack. Kore-eda relishes the thrill and professionalism of Osamu and Shota’s theft, using his camera to glide around the room as they go to work. But it’s what comes after their theft that reveals what type of people Osamu and Shota are.
On the way back home, the father and his son hear a small girl crying on a first-floor apartment balcony. It’s cold outside and Osamu is worried for the girl, so he takes her home to warm her up and feed her some croquettes. The girl, a quiet four-year-old named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), meets the rest of Osamu’s family living in their cramped, ground-level apartment, including his wife, Nobuyu (Sakura Ando), daughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and mother, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki). Hatsue finds evidence that Yuri’s mother is abusing her and soon enough the family decides to adopt her, ushering her into their poverty-stricken but loving family.
Like most of Kore-eda’s films, the vast majority of Shoplifters is not plot driven. We watch these characters go about their lives and we spy on their interactions, witnessing their quiet affection for each other and the understated difficulties of their lives as poor people. For instance, we follow Osamu as he tries to get work at a mine only to injure himself, or Nobuyu stealing small items from the clothing she cleans at work, knowing the owners will likely not miss them. We also see Aki work as a sort of stripper/call girl at a late-night brothel, pretending to perform sexual acts for the amusement of disaffected young men behind two-way mirrors. Kore-eda plays with our assumptions throughout the film, knowing that the viewer will come to instant conclusions about the circumstances of Osamu’s family and the type of people they are. As the film develops, he frequently upsets these assumptions, revealing complicated layers about these individuals and their family situation.
The adoption of Yuri is the narrative throughline for the film, as Yuri’s mother reports her kidnapping to the police, making their unofficial adoption of her another crime of necessity in their lives. But Kore-eda doesn’t focus on the kidnapping aspect of the plot until later moments of the film. Instead, he focuses on the idea of how a chosen family can be as meaningful as a given family, even if it goes against Japanese social convention. In one sequence, he harkens back to the emotional climax of Like Father, Like Son, watching Osamu pretend to have no affection for his adopted child, only to have his true feelings burst to the surface in an act of desperation.
In other moments, he calls back to the children of Nobody Knows, once again exploring how poverty forces children to act beyond their age and take risks in the world, which often leads to tragedy. Although Shoplifters is never as dark as Nobody Knows, many scenes delve into the darkness of this sort of childhood and play with the viewer’s emotions about the children involved. Shoplifters also recalls Nobody Knows in newcomer Kairi Jo’s performance as Shota, which captures the same resourcefulness and innocence as Yuya Yagiri’s remarkable debut work as Akira in that film; Kore-eda has a talent for coaxing emotional honesty and subtlety out of child performances.
There are narrative surprises in Shoplifters that I don’t want to give away. Suffice to say, such developments in a film that is otherwise so narratively subtle were genuinely shocking and effective. The power of Kore-eda’s work sneaks up on you, devastating you with a quiet line or a shocking moment of tragedy amidst the many scenes of gentle camaraderie and honest toil. It may not have the devastating effect of Nobody Knows or the overwhelming familial insight of Still Walking, but it’s another exceptional work by the greatest working Japanese dramatic filmmaker.
9 out of 10
Shoplifters (2018, Japan)
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; starring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jo, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki.