Written & Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Osamu is the patriarch of a makeshift family living in the shadow of poverty in Tokyo. His partner Nobuyo is the mother with adopted son Shota, half-sister Aki, and grandmother Hatsue. Osamu and Shota routinely shoplift food from neighborhood grocery stores, having developed a system of signals and distractions. On their way home after a recent venture, they find Yuri, a little girl they have talked to before alone on her parent’s apartment balcony. Feeling sorry for her level of neglect they bring her home for dinner. Nobuyo helps Osamu bring her back after and they overhear Yuri’s parents fighting, her father hitting her mother, and the admission that they never wanted the child in the first place. Nobuyo decides to make Yuri a part of the family and from their life goes on as it always has. Until one day a news report announces that Yuri’s parents have filed a missing person report.
Shoplifters is a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of humanist cinema. For most of the film, we get to experience a slice of life story about a low-income family doing their best to make life joyful for each other. Osamu never allows their circumstances to bring them down. He’s also instilling some anti-social behaviors in the children. They don’t interact with other kids and aren’t developing any skills other than using sleight of hand to snag a few groceries. It makes sense then when Shota begins to have second thoughts later in the film, questioning what path all this is leading the family down.
Nobuyo is the most phenomenal member of the family, quietly making sure everything goes off without a hitch. We never see her say they are keeping Yuri, she does it, cutting the child’s hair in an attempt to disguise her. Nobuyo is only one of two family members who is regularly working but eventually faces the crunch when her place of work is losing money. The choice between keeping her job and protecting Yuri is put in front of her and much to her credit she chooses this lost child. There’s never a scene of a breakdown or crying. This is just what Nobuyo has to do, she keeps going and smiling and finding pleasures in simplicity.
Despite the warmth exuded by the family there is romanticizing the situation. By the conclusion, we get an authentically stark note. Because they have been balancing themselves on the edge of marginality when everything comes crashing down it is hard and destructive. Family members commit acts that betray yet are still perfectly understandable and sympathetic. Other family members make significant sacrifices to their well-being to ensure everyone can keep living and trying to make something out of life. I was pleased that the director made a choice not to give us a fairy tale ending. There’s real beauty and sadness with where everyone ends up. Some connections are strengthened despite the certain distance, others are left in situations that have potentially sad & ambiguous futures, and one family member is last seen at the precipice of a decision we aren’t allowed to witness.
Shoplifters surprises you with its aimlessness for the first two-thirds, a meditation on what family is and how we find ourselves drawn to others without realizing it. When the jig is up, so to speak, and truths and flaws are laid bare we’re faced with a quiet tragedy. I know Shoplifters will ache in my heart for a while, I suspect. The struggle of these people to enjoy life in spite of everything should inspire anyone watching the movie, which never condescends or slips into the maudlin.