Much to take away from ‘Shoplifters’

Hirokazu Koreeda’s film, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, examines what life is like for people who have been thrown away by society.

November 28, 2018 20:08
3 minute read.
'Shoplifters', which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, examines what life is like

'Shoplifters', which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, examines what life is like for people who have been thrown away by society. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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At first glance, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, seems like the story of a hardworking Tokyo family struggling to pay its bills, who take in a girl victimized by her abusive parents.

But as the story unravels, it turns out to be darker and more complex. Avoiding stereotypes, Koreeda, whose films often deal with the meaning of family, examines what life is like for people who have been thrown away by society. The truth at the heart of the family is not revealed all at once, but is a seamless part of the story, which plays almost like a contemporary Japanese take on the Italian neo-realist cinema of the 1940s.

The movie opens with Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), the father of the clan, taking his handsome, mischievous son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), on a strategic shoplifting expedition. They buy a little and steal a lot, but all that they take is food. On their way back home, they catch a glimpse of Yuri, alone and freezing on her balcony and bring her home. It isn’t much of a home and it certainly isn’t the glittering, prosperous Tokyo we are used to seeing in the movies. Three generations are squeezed into little more than a single room. Osamu is employed in construction, but the work isn’t steady and when he gets injured on the job, his employer finds a way to avoid paying him compensation. Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in an industrial laundry, pocketing anything of value she finds in the garments she irons, a way to make up for the fact that her shifts keep getting cut. Her half-sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is university age, but she works at a kind of peep show, dressed in a schoolgirl uniform that she gradually strips off. The matriarch of the family, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), helps support them all with her meager pension and by begging money from her late husband’s second family. Shota does not go to school, but helps out, mostly by stealing.

Taking in a child, and one they may be accused of kidnapping, seems foolhardy, but when they see the girl’s bruises, they realize that their small, chilly home may be a sanctuary for her.

Nothing is quite what it seems in this complex film and just when you think you have figured things out, Koreeda hurls another curve ball at the audience. The film is a nuanced critique of contemporary Japan, where entire families, even working families, fall between the cracks. We watch events unfold from the characters’ points of view and it seems completely understandable that they would steal and risk being accused of kidnapping. Koreeda even humanizes the shopkeeper from whom they steal most often, emphasizing the tragedy in a story with no clear villains but much transgressive behavior.

The cast is uniformly brilliant, especially Ando, as a woman whose maternal impulses are expressed strangely and Lily Franky as her devoted and cheerfully amoral husband. Franky had a key role in Koreeda’s 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, the fact-based story of two families who discover their sons were switched at birth. Kirin Kiki, a great actress, who portrays the grandmother, also worked with the director in the past, on such films as Our Little Sister and After the Storm, and who also starred in Sweet Bean. The child actors are startlingly natural.

For Koreeda, one of the best contemporary Japanese directors, this film is a thematic return to the 2004 Nobody Knows, about a 12-year-old boy who takes charge of his younger siblings after their mother abandons them. In spite of this film’s virtues, though, I didn’t connect to it as much as I did to that film, or to any of his other movies. There is a slightly didactic quality to the social criticism here. Koreeda has a great talent for creating a world and drawing the audience into it, but here I was often aware of the lessons the film was trying to teach about the flaws of capitalism.

Still, Shoplifters is well worth seeing for its twist-filled story and phenomenal acting.

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