Shoplifters: Is This Your Family?, by Scott Nye
Hirokazu Koreeda is no stranger to the unconventional family, his recent films having tackled a switched-at-birth tale, sisters striking out on their own, and divorce, but his latest, Palme d’Or winning film puts him in especially unconventional territory. Shoplifters is once again about how our true family is as much chosen as granted – in the slums of Tokyo, a couple looks after a boy on the edge of puberty and a young girl, both of whom we intuit come from (separate) abusive households. Together they live with an older woman and her granddaughter, the only true relations in the family, but whose bond might be more selective than we initially realize. What really sets it apart, besides the lack of much relation within this odd family unit, is that although they love, trust, and care for one another, they may not be good for each other. This family steals.
It mostly revolves around somewhat-innocent shoplifting, grabbing life’s necessities from big chain grocery stores that can chalk up the theft to inventory or other routine loss. In an unusually-thrilling opening sequence (Koreeda, in addition to writing and directing, is also his own editor), Osamu (Koreeda regular Lily Franky) guides the boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), through their highly-organized miniature heist, communicating in their own sign language when to stall and when to pounce. They steal in the city, but their home seems a decent hike away. Barely a shack held up by possessions hoarded out of necessity, they haven’t the luxury of separate rooms aside from a makeshift sliding door Shota has installed in his cubbyhole. There they distribute the acquired goods to Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando); Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), the young girl they’ve recently taken in; and twentysomething Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and her grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki, another Koreeda regular). Then they go to bed and get up for work the next morning. Like many living in poverty today, they still have jobs to go to.
If this way of life seems tenuous, on the verge of collapse, don’t worry, they know and we’ll come to innately understand. When Osamu gets injured at his construction job, he’s brought home by a coworker who’s fed enough lies about everybody’s relations to satisfy; maybe the next person who comes around won’t be so sure where their children came from. This fragility makes their longing for a deeper bond all the more touching. Osamu is desperate for Shota to see him as a father, Nobuyo takes exceptional joy at bonding with Yuri, and Aki wants more from her grandmother than perhaps she can give. Aki is a sex worker, putting on softcore shows for men on the other side of an opaque pane of glass, and has trouble seeing the boundaries of these relationships. They may be packed tightly, but the family has trouble connecting – Osamu even insists it’s okay that he and Nobuyo can never have sex.
Much of this is brushed aside, as we all do to some extent every day, by the immediate need for survival and the pleasantries they can afford. A rare trip to the beach – the children’s first – finds the film at its most joyous. Koreeda is one of very few contemporary directors interested in this sort of routine beauty free of immediate conflict. His 2015 film, Our Little Sister, featured virtually no complicating obstacles, instead constantly reinforcing the bond the girls share, and it’s an outright masterpiece. The joy in Shoplifters is best encapsulated when the family stands outside in awe of a fireworks show they cannot see, only hear, cinematographer Kondo Ryuto painting them with the faintest glow of their explosions. Happiness will remain out of reach, but satisfactory enough so long as they can stick together.
I’d like to say they could. I’d like to say the power of love and family transcends all things. I’d like to say the emotional sledgehammer of this film comes gently. That’s usually the case, after all. Even depressing films, for those of us whose emotional register has been so warped by art, are often not really that depressing if they’re truly great. Beauty in execution can often outweigh devastating narrative content. But Shoplifters wrecked me through the evening and well into the next morning. Koreeda expertly twists his usual pleasantries, giving us just enough to let us think this can last forever, buoyed by the innate certainty we bring to our daily lives. It is a beautiful film, and a heartbreaking one.