Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 Palme D’or winning film Shoplifters is a beautiful family-centred drama that totally engrosses and captivates from the beginning. Whilst there are no big dramatic moments, it is the minutiae of the behaviours and interactions of everyone involved that draws you into their little world and keeps you entertained.
Shoplifters starts, as you would expect, with a scene of shoplifting as Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Kairi Jō) move around their local Tokyo store and put into action their well practised routine. On their way back home after a successful trip they find little five-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone outside in the cold. They decide to take her home and look after her and it is here that we meet the rest of the family: Grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).
Deciding that Yuri is best staying with them they informally adopt her and welcome her into the family unit. The more we see of everyone interacting and getting by, working for each other, the more we are swept up in their antics. And this wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the wonderful performances from all involved, from the very young Yuri to the matriarch Hatsue. Kore-eda’s writing and direction works to bring the family to life in a realistic, relatable, and extremely likeable way. Each character has a distinct personality and a depth to them and the more you see of them the more your heart opens to them and their situation. If ever there was a bunch of loveable rogues this is them.
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Shoplifters contrasts the social norms against what this group of misfits consider normal, seeing the things that they are doing as being right in terms of their family but wrong in the eyes of everyone else. It is a complex relationship that they have between what is right and what is wrong. Their moral compasses are collectively slightly off the mark.
Working with cinematographer Kondo Ryuto, Shoplifters captures the normal and the mundane and it never looked so good or seemed so interesting. Just watching the children preparing to shoplift and seeing Yuri learn off Shota is fantastic. The warmth and collectiveness of everyone is such a joy to behold that you forget that what they are doing is wrong. There are some implied moments that have more of an edge, including about the jobs that people do and how this group came together, but even at the end you feel like you can forgive these people for anything that they could have done in the past.
The love for this familial unit is a joy, everyone is looking out for everyone else: protecting each other and pulling their weight to make sure it works because they all know what the alternative is and they don’t want that. As we reach towards the finale there are some deeper reflections that Kore-eda turns his eye towards. Nobuyo, defending herself, near the end when questioned about grandmother Hatsue says: “Why did we throw her away? We didn’t throw her away. We found her. You threw her away. We found her.”
And it is this difference in perspective that is what this entire film is about. The family see things one way, maybe the most communal way, and society sees things another. Yes they may have been playing the system, getting the most out of it that they can, maybe bending rules and breaking some minor laws, but society can do things that are much, much worse and do it legally and without thought or conscience for the outcome or effects.
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Putting a child back together with abusive parents, letting an old lady waste away on her own. Personal cost often doesn’t seem to come into the picture when these big decisions are made, but that is the coda that this family live by, doing things that are for the best interest of everyone and not just following the rules.
Hirokazu Kore-eda weaves his tale of this ragtag group and you find yourself being totally immersed. Chipping away at any reservations about the conduct of this group you may have had beforehand, drawing you in and then letting it all flow over you like a warm wave. The wonderful characters on display you just want to spend more time with, see what else they get up to and what else they do to get by. There is no convoluted storyline here, just a plot that is thoroughly engaging and personable. Kore-eda touches on reality and brings the ridiculous and mundane together in such a fantastic and accessible way. Rich and welcoming in tone, you feel like you are spying on the machinations of the family life and the lengths that they go to, to not only stay afloat but keep things covert from the authorities.
Shoplifters is funny and irreverent but also poignant, warm and inviting. This is a film about finding your place and finding your true family and it does it all perfectly.