Shoplifters Review: A family drama that will steal your heart

“Shoplifters” (万引き家族) is the 2018 Palme d’Or-winning masterwork of celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. The film tells the story of a family which, while unconventional for their habitual shoplifting, is still familiar in its rhythms and relationships: a mother and father who go to work each morning, a grandmother who spoils the young ones, and a brother who feels displaced by the introduction of a younger sister. The story unspools slowly, foregrounding the small moments of joy that make the endless slog of daily life bearable while quietly, almost imperceptibly, hinting at the secrets that are buried just beneath the surface.

The Shibata family is treading water, just barely keeping their heads above the surface. They live in the close quarters of a pensioner apartment belonging to the grandmother, Hatsue (played by the late and exceptional Kirin Kiki). The father, Osamu (Lily Franky), is a day laborer and the mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), is a cleaner. They supplement their small incomes with Hatsue’s pension and the money made by Nobuyo’s “sister”, the lovely Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works at a peepshow in the evenings. The rest of the income is theft, a skill shared among the adults and taught to Osamu and Nobuyo’s adopted son, Shota (Jyo Kairi). What little they have, they share, and not just amongst themselves: when Osamu and Shoyu see a little girl neglected outside in the cold, they bring her home and feed her. As signs of neglect give way to signs of more serious abuse, they make the decision to “adopt” her too. Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) joins the family, and so begins a most consequential year in the lives of the Shibatas.

The script is a masterclass in reveals: revealing relationships, revealing histories, revealing secrets. Throwaway comments are often the key to unlocking a mystery, and the small variations in the way characters speak to one another tell us everything we could hope to know about the various connections between them. The relationship that is granted the most screen time is the one shared between Shota and Osamu, and a more deeply excavated account of a father-son bond would be difficult to find. But no relationship is left unattended to, and even those pairings that receive only minutes of shared air space have distinctive and richly detailed dynamics. One such example is found in Shota and his adoptive mother, Nobuyo. The two have only one scene together, but the time they share walking down the street, laughing together, commenting on the shops they pass by, is enough to communicate everything about what they mean to one another.

When it comes to actor performances, there is scarcely a false note. It’s hard to decide who shines the brightest — is it Sakura Ando, whose tender portrait of motherhood is so gentle and yet so filled with certainty? Is it Jyo Kairi, deftly rendering a young boy who, like so many others, yearns for change while wishing that everything could stay the same? The best moments come when the actors work together to demonstrate just what family looks like, and nearly every scene sets forth a new example.

One scene that stands out is the very first: it is buoyant and stylish, wordlessly unveiling the skillful father-son team of thieves at work in a grocery store. Scored with cheerful, percussive music, the sequence is one that gives viewers the pleasure of watching excellence at work. Indeed, watching Shota nimbly drop boxes of ramen into his open knapsack, it’s easy to forget that there’s anything unsavory about his actions at all. Immediately, it is evident that shoplifting is something that father and son do together; they have a complex system of hand gestures, and they know when to step in and help the other out of a tense moment. This warm camaraderie is present everywhere in “Shoplifters”, always pointing to the little ways people tie themselves to one another.

In another scene that won’t soon be forgotten, Nobuyo cradles Yuri close to her chest. It’s nighttime, and they sit in front of a fire where they have just burned the clothes of Yuri’s previous life. Nobuyo tells Yuri that she loves her. Yuri shrinks away — her past has taught her that love means pain and punishment. No, Nobuyo tells her. Love is not pain, love is a hug. She embraces the little girl with such aching compassion, it leaks off the screen and warms the skin in even the most air-conditioned of movie theatres. Here, Kore-eda — who wrote, directed, and edited the film — illustrates his phenomenal intuition for when to hold and when to cut: the moment stretches onwards, providing a solace that the audience will need to tap back into as the plot pushes them to consider moments when the definition of love is less clear-cut.

To watch “Shoplifters” is to be put in the position of its youngest subjects. You learn through observation, through watching the interactions between people. You grow to know and love those people. You figure out the rules of their world: what is good and what is bad, what is fun and what is harmful. Then the balance shifts, the glass shatters, and you’re left with the pieces to figure out what, if anything, is still true.

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