“Shoplifters” - Hirokazu Koreeda (2018)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film, Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018), has so far received  unanimous acclaim from film critics the world over [1,2,3 ], and it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.  Koreeda is a well-established Japanese film auteur who has written, directed, and edited many of his best works (e..g. Nobody Knows, 2004; Still Walking, 2008; Like Father, Like Son, 2013; and After the Storm, 2016).  His films often center around multiple generational aspects of Japanese families, and in fact they often involve a deeper exploration of what it means to be the member of a family.  This is particularly the case with Shoplifters

Because of this general focus on familial contexts, Koreeda has often been compared to Japanese film icon Yasujiro Ozu.  And this comparison is reinforced by the fact that Koreeda often employed, like Ozu, straight-on closeups, with the subject looking straight into and speaking directly to the camera.  However, despite these similarities in style and content, Koreeda’s earthy and dynamic presentation conveys, for me, quite a different feeling than Ozu’s more detached and contemplative approach.  Part of this overall mood difference could be attributed to differences in the social milieus considered – the social circumstance of Shoplifters are at the gritty and chaotic lowest economic level, while the social circumstances of most Ozu films are in the more customized middle classes.

The story of Shoplifters revolves around a bottom-class “family” in Tokyo, who somehow manage to get along congenially despite their constant shortage of money to live on.  At the outset of the film, two of the family members come across a little girl on the street who they suspect is the victim of child abuse.  So they decide to take the girl into their home and informally adopt her as a new member of their family.  As we follow the family members about their various mundane activities, we gradually learn, by slow disclosure, more about the makeup of this family.  As far as we can tell early on, the family consists of
  • Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky).  He is the father, and he works as a construction worker whenever he can find a contractor who will hire him for a short-term assignment.  But in general he seems to show more diligence in shoplifting than in construction working.
     
  • Nobuyo (Sakura Ando).  She is Osamu’s wife, and she works in an industrial laundry.  One gets the feeling that it is her warm and expansive personality that holds this family together.
     
  • Shota (Kairi Jo).  He is the early teenage son who participates in almost daily shoplifting excursions with his father, Osamu.
     
  • Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).   She is a pretty, twentyish young woman who appears at first to be a daughter of Osamu and Nobuyo, but later turns out to be Nobuyo’s half-sister.  At any rate she is definitely a core member of this family.  She works as a stripper at a porno gallery, where individual clients can view her lewd performance through a two-way mirror (differing levels of room illumination mean that the glass partition works as a window in one direction and as a mirror in the opposite direction).
     
  • Yuri (Miyu Sasaki).  She is the five- or six-year-old girl who is discovered on the street  by Osamu and Shota coming home from a shoplifting operation, and she is ultimately adopted by the Shibata family.
     
  • Hatsue (Kirin Kiki).   She is the grandmother and a key member of the family, because  they all live together in her cramped home, and the government pension of her late ex-husband is a principal source of the family’s income. 
There is no single star or protagonist of this film; and there is focalization at times on all of these family members at various points.  The viewer may at times suspect that the film’s narrative focus is on Osamu or Nobuyo, but at other times and towards the end, the narrative focus seems to have shifted to Shota and Yuri.  Overall, we could say that the narrative focus is on the “family” as a whole, as seen through its individual members.

Perhaps what makes Shoplifters an interesting film are its various social themes, which it presents in a lighthearted fashion.  One of those themes concerns honesty and authenticity.  None of the family members is who he or she claims to be, and they all seem to have multiple identities.  Indeed, they are not truly connected by family relationships, as the word ‘family’ is normally understood.  This is all revealed at the end of the film, when one of Shota’s shoplifting acts (perhaps intentionally) goes awry.  At that point they are remanded by the authorities, and the “family” becomes unraveled when their original identities are revealed.

So they are all liars to the outside world, and yet to each other, they are warm and authentic.  They (and perhaps the viewer, too) feel that bad luck and dysfunctional social norms have forced them into lives of petty thievery.  But “reclaiming” basic commodities from big companies in order to have a basic life is, to them, just a matter of getting some basic things that should have been accorded to them anyway.  And to each other, the family members are honest and mutually supportive. 

Another theme concerns what it means to be a family.  Although our “family” in this film is a fraud, they have all chosen to be members of this family.  And it seems that Shota and Yuri get more parental love and concern in this false family than they did in their original families [4]. The film rhetorically asks the question why the government shouldn’t recognize the authenticity and the legality of this kind of family, too?

And a further question also comes to mind.  How is it morally acceptable in a relatively wealthy country that the governing authorities can allow such conditions to exist that even people with ordinary jobs feel compelled to engage in shoplifting?  This is a question that can be asked in many world societies.

This is not to suggest that thievery is actually the right thing to do.  The family members are not fighting off starvation. And indeed children Shota and Yuri seem to have been welcomed into the family by Osamu in part because the two kids can serve as innocent props in connection with his shoplifting capers.  But the family members are not truly bad people, either.  They are just ordinary people looking for ordinary happiness.  But they have slipped into mildly unlawful behavior, because this is what some ordinary people on the lower rungs of society do sometimes.  It is Shota who begins to have moral qualms about his and his family’s behavior.  He perhaps precipitates his family’s downfall in the end because of his burgeoning moral concerns.

In the end, we can perhaps empathize with, if not entirely condone, all the members of the Shibata family and their varying perspectives, which is a strength of Koreeda’s production.  All the acting performances are quite good and natural, particularly that of Sakura Ando as Nobuyo Shibata.  It is she who carries the vital spirit of Shoplifters and its underlying messages.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Maggie Lee, “Cannes Film Review: ‘Shoplifters’ (Manbiki Kazoku)”, Variety, (14 May 2018).   
  2. Mark Schilling, “‘Shoplifters’: Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner is an eloquent look at the human condition”, The Japan Times, (13 June 2018).   
  3. Jessica Kiang, “Cannes first look: Shoplifters – a wonky family lament that weaponises Koreeda’s compassion”, Sight & Sound, (19 May 2018).   
  4. Although at one point it seems that the self-indulgent Osamu was ready to betray his “son”, Shota.

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