Quite often a film can be built up with unreasonable expectations, which was what I feared would be the case from the latest offering from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda, Shoplifters. The buzz around this film from both the festival circuit to my trusted fellow film scribes & podcasters, was that it was another amazing film just in time for awards season. I had seen two of Koreeda’s early films, After Life (1998) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), both being highly original & very good films to boot, so there was no reason to suspect a third helping would disappoint.
Shoplifters opens up with Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) entering a grocery store to embark on their teamed shoplifting scam. Osamu pretends to be shopping while Shota places his open backpack on the ground to drop stolen items into, often with Osamu providing distracting cover. After the two finish their mission, they casually stroll out with their loot and converse with each other in the cold Japanese air. We assume this to be a father & son team, but aren’t exactly sure what the purpose of their stealing is and I was admittedly placing judgement on Osamu for not only letting his son steal but also encouraging the behavior.
As the two get closer to home, they come across a little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who is out in the cold with seemingly no home or food. Osamu, feeling bad for Yuri, decides to invite her home at the behest of Shota. When they arrive home, the other family members are awaiting to share in the stolen feast they’ve snatched. Here we meet the grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). Nobuyo isn’t very welcoming of Yuri, seeing it as yet another mouth to feed in this already struggling family. It’s eventually decided that after dinner they would take Yuri back to where they found her near her home. Much to the surprise of Nobuyo, when they arrive at Yuri’s home, they hear Yuri’s parents arguing and the sounds of domestic violence as well as their casual lack of care as to Yuri’s whereabouts. Nobuyo shows mercy and decides to take Yuri back home with them.
As the story moves along we see that this family is coping with making ends meet, each one having little odd jobs whether illegal or just seedy. We further find out that Shota is not actually the child of Osamu and Nobuyo and nor is Aki. Hatsue’s contribution to the Shibata gang is receiving a sort of pension as well as housing her family illegally from her unsuspecting landlord. Osamu, who has trained his son in the art of shoplifting as a way to help the family, is thought of as something justified and quite normal for the current situation they find themselves in. Each character is explored in their little endeavors but mostly the story focuses on the two children, as Shota shows Yuri the ropes of her new life. She eventually helps him when they shoplift again, picking up the tricks of the trade very quickly.
*** SPOILERS AHEAD ***
As the film moves into the third act, events come to test the family as well as revel some of its secrets. First, Yuri is finally reported missing so the Shibata family cut her hair and rename her so as not to be found out. Secondly, the grandmother dies, leaving a giant hole in the dynamic of the Shibata clan. Osamu and Nobuyo quickly make decisions as to try to keep from crumbling, which includes burying the grandmother in the small back area of the house, withdrawing the money left in her account and continuing to harbor Yuri. Shota, at some point going through the angst of the situation, acts out by purposely botching a shoplifting job with Yuri that sees him trying to evade the police with disastrous consequences. When cornered he leaps off a bridge which lands him in hospital. Osamu and Nobuyo go to the hospital to recover Shota, but when confronted with having to give up information about themselves they excuse themselves with the empty promise they will return. Now knowing they are close to being found out they go back home to gather what they can to make a run for it, but this is not to be. They police are waiting for them as they try to leave the home and their lives come crashing down around them. It’s also revealed that they were involved with a previous suspicious death and with all the discoveries of the buried grandmother, stolen children, and attempt to flee, this is seemingly the end of the Shibatas. A few more crushing scenes follow that really elevate Shoplifters from a really good film to a great one.
Koreeda successfully asks the question of what truly makes a family. Often people treat blood better than the people they really care about and love. We are trained from an early age to protect the sanctity of the family, but what really makes a family? Should I care about a blood relative that has little or no interest in me or impact upon my life and vice versa? Who really shapes us into what we are and how should those people be honored? I myself have many blood relatives, but would gladly stick my neck out for one of my close friends than some of those relatives. As we go through life I think its about the mentors we come across and the family you build that honestly define family love.
Another great element of what makes Shoplifters work so well is the actors, especially the children. All the players are divine as the Shibata family, and you can see the connection they have throughout the film. I found myself early on being judgmental of the characters for various reasons but eventually felt compassion and sympathy for what they are trying to achieve. Under lesser acting talent, this would certainly not have succeeded as well as it does so credit where it’s due to the fine ensemble cast. Shoplifters is an unforgettable movie and a real gem in a year that’s proven to be an incredibly strong one for film.
Film ’89 Verdict – 9/10
Shoplifters is on limited release in the US now.