Shoplifters (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Thunderbird Releasing) Running Time: 121 minutes approx.
The family that steals together stays together – or something like that. Okay, that isn’t the exact quote but in the context of the latest masterwork from Japan’s top chronicler of modern life in the Land of the Rising Sun, it is very much the truth. Interestingly, this also raises questions as to how we define “family”.
Huddled together in the small and cramped living room of a dingy little house we find the Shibata family – grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), husband Osamu (Lily Franky), wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and son Shota (Kairi Jyo). At least that is how it looks – none of them appear to be actually related aside from Osamu and Nobuyo, but as far as they are concerned, they are a family.
Despite having jobs, there is little money coming in with most of it coming from Hatsue’s pension, so to supplement this meagre income, Osamu and Shota have got shoplifting down to a fine art. One cold evening, they meet a young girl Juri (Miyu Sasaki), an apparent victim of abuse, and take her in, slowly adding her into the family dynamic, but when Juri’s disappearance makes the news, she prefers to remain with the Shibatas.
After the brief detour from his usual family based escapades with the grisly crime drama The Third Murder, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to his usual terra firmer with the Cannes and everything else winning Shoplifters. Don’t think the title implies an endorsement of five-fingered discounts, Kore-eda brings elements from Oliver Twist from one era of austerity into another in exploring the global problem of poverty.
Japanese cinema rarely ventures to the outskirts of society unless there is something to say or plans to tell a feel good story, at which Kore-eda is a master, but his track record of also hitting hard with his subjects means we shouldn’t fall into the trap of expecting a film like Shoplifters to fit into the former category.
We can already tell the Shibatas aren’t a blood family but this we now doesn’t always mean there isn’t a genuine bond there. Case in point in young Juri, who Osamu and Shota find sitting outside her home one cold night and offer her food and comfort, more than her arguing parents do.
It is when Osamu and Nobuyo take a sleeping Juri home that they hear the parents mid-fight admitting that neither wanted a child, a change of heart occurs. At first, there is a little jealousy from Shota, now no longer the junior of the family, but having a third pair of hands during their shoplifting sprees comes in handy, although Juri’s corruption in this manner begins to weigh on Shota’s mind.
Elsewhere, Osamu is forced off work as a day labourer with a leg injury, his casual status meaning no sick pay, whilst Nobuyo sweats it out in a corporate laundry-cleaning firm, helping herself to anything of value left in the pockets. The most interesting and best paying job belongs to Aki, working in a hostess club where she dresses as a schoolgirl and “performs” for clients behind a two-way mirror.
Aki has the smartest clothes and a mobile phone because Hatsue doesn’t take rent from her (for reasons explained later on) yet is happy to accept stolen shampoo and anything else pilfered for the family. Hatsue herself talks in riddles about her money situation yet has a secret money source, pertaining to the family of her late husband.
Superficially, it would seem these dubiously behaved misfits are made for each other so could a genuine act of kindness be their undoing? Kore-eda weaves another deceptively layered tale in exploring this notion without editorialising. The Shibatas might be at the bottom of the social ladder but they are happy, sharing the love in their (mis)adventures as any family would, the common denominator being their disparate origins.
These backgrounds are only vaguely hinted at, quite often so innocuously addressed we think nothing of them. Ordinarily, this would lead to an info dump of flashback but Kore-eda is smarter than that, letting the ideas fester in our heads until he is ready to reveal all. But, it is enough to cast a shadow over the proceedings and cast doubt as to just who these people are.
Human frailties and curious foibles are Kore-eda’s speciality and once again, he gets to the heart of the matter through the hearts of his characters whilst tearing ours apart in the process. We shouldn’t champion the Shibatas (“It’s not stealing if it hasn’t been sold” says Osamu) but we can’t help ourselves; even when they hit their nadir and a mirror is held up to their actions, their philosophy on family holds more water than the accepted norm.
The writing is typically strong and as ever; time seems to stand still when watching a Kore-eda film but it needs a capable cast to bring the characters to life and makes us feel for them, and he has recruited some of Japan’s finest here. Sakura Ando is peerless in conveying so much by doing so little and Lily Franky serves to remind us why he is always so busy.
In one of her final roles before her passing, there is something palpably elegiac about Kirin Kiki’s performance, whilst at the other end of age scale, the two youngsters Kairi Jyo and Miyu Sasaki create an adorable and natural chemistry together. Mayu Matsuoka fills the elder teen role competently enough but Aki is the one character that needed more exploration.
Shoplifters posits the idea that even by doing wrong, you are doing right, but perspective is everything. It questions the definition of family, how society pigeonholes us all, and ponders if home really is where the heart is and does so in a delicate fashion before the tightly wound dramatic coil can be held back no longer. Heart warming and heartbreaking, if the final shot doesn’t leave you cold, nothing will.
Japanese Language 2.0 PCM Stereo
Rating – **** ½
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