For such a soft-spoken, subtle piece of work, this latest offering from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is certainly making plenty of noise on the festival circuit, picking up the Palme d’Or at Cannes and earning accolades whenever it has screened. It certainly isn’t hard to understand why Shoplifters has struck a chord with audiences as it is an amusing and unconventional story of a family eking out an existence in a Tokyo that is far removed from the neon-filled streetscapes that we so typically see in films set in this city. This is a story about family or, more accurately, what constitutes a family. Is it simply a connection through genetics or marriage, or is it something else altogether? Furthermore, what are the dynamics that bind people together or divide them? The Sumida’s live in a tiny house surrounded by nondescript apartment towers, their ramshackle abode the last vestige of what this part of Tokyo once looked like. Although confined to just a couple of small rooms, the motley family of six enjoy a camaraderie that belies their circumstances, relying on petty theft and other dodgy dealings to make ends meet, but seemingly content enough with their lot in life. At least, that is, until the world they have created starts to crumble and all sorts of secrets are revealed.
Osamu (Lily Franky) is a Fagin-like figure in an extended family that includes his wife Noboyu (Sakura Andô), his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki in one of her final roles) and the teenaged Aki (Mayo Matsuoka). The house belongs to Hatsue and, whilst the living arrangements are one of mutual convenience, there seems to be a genuine sense of contentment within the group despite the fact that they exist on the margins of a society whose wealth and prosperity is far removed from their reality. Although he works as a day labourer on construction sites (with all the uncertainty that goes with it), Osamu supplements his income with daily shoplifting expeditions with Shota as his faithful sidekick. Noboyu works in a hotel laundry and helps herself to anything she finds in pockets, while Aki’s contribution to the family finances comes courtesy of her work in what is perhaps the tamest peep show imaginable. Hatsue, meanwhile, boosts her pension with money she guilt-trips out of the adult children of her late husband’s second wife. It is whilst returning from one of his ‘shopping’ trips that Osamu stumbles across Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a young child who has been subjected to abuse and neglect. Impulsively, Osamu decides to take her home for a few days until the family, after some debate, agree that she should stay with them.
It is the latter stages of the film where things get interesting as we start to learn more about each of the family members and how they came to be in this situation. Osamu’s abduction of Juri forms part of a larger pattern of concealment and there are some genuine surprises amongst the revelations that emerge as the family finds themselves in a most unwelcome spotlight that threatens to tear them apart. It is all extremely well executed by the director and his cast; a clever and, at times, moving tome that explores parenthood as something that is earned. As such, Kore-eda takes specific aim at the failings of the authorities that determine who makes a suitable parent.
Adapted by Kore-eda from a news report, Shoplifters is a delicate, delightful foray into a side of contemporary Japanese society that we rarely see on screen in such a meaningful way, bringing the dysfunction, hypocrisy and social disparities of modern Japan into plain sight (which has apparently upset Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe). Even the seemingly mundane moments of domesticity are wonderful to watch and an overhead shot of the family looking skyward at fireworks is one of several evocative moments that make this story about a group of damaged people striving to make the best of their circumstances such a moving and deeply intelligent film. Be warned though, a highly emotional final frame will likely leave you furious, or heartbroken, or both.