Shoplifters (2018) dares to defy common misconceptions about Japan. The country’s media ignores the marginalized, favoring a technological utopia that does not leave anyone out. The truth is darker. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winning feature explores a family not bound by blood but by their intrinsic otherness from their culture. It arouses such profound moral questions, such as what family is, and the ambiguity between right and wrong when you’ll do anything to support those you love.
Brilliantly, the film opens with provocative moral ambiguity. Young Shota (Jyo Kairi) is seen stealing from a market. His father figure, Osamu (Lily Franky) oversees the operation, blocking sightlines from store workers. This is their everyday existence, cheating out one more day of boxed noodles from the shops. Is it morally wrong? Perhaps not if the store stays in business and their family stays fed, the film suggests. They happen upon a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who’s been mistreated and take her under their family’s wing. Not only are they shoplifting food but children.
Their small ramshackle house hardly has enough room. Rarely has a film so fondly framed such rot and despair. Piles of contraband line the walls. An accumulation of things and people, stolen and found. Anchoring the household is the wonderfully funny Grandmother of the unit, an expert performance by Kirin Kiki. She brings humanity and a common hierarchy to the family’s sense of disorder and disgrace. She withholds her own secrets that may devastate the household and their sense of belonging once revealed. Beautiful Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) has a fun-loving, teasing relationship with the grandmother that swells our hearts, when she explains she works as a kind of stripper, a “Male Virgin Killer”, but then we are also saddened by her reality. A gracious performance by the mother figure, Nobuyo (a nuanced and special Mayu Matsuoka), completes our mental image of a home. Nobuyo sits with her new daughter and realizes, they have the same scars from abuse, and holds her close, explains this is what people do when they love you.
These inner-family dynamics are compelling and thoroughly believable. We gain patience with Shoplifters, as it slowly allows us into their lives. It’s not motivated by the schedule of usual plotting devices and movement. Sometimes we sit with the characters and experience their pain or bliss, wade into their love and feel wholly included. It is this inclusive lens with which Kore-eda has become the auteur of the Japanese family. Never does it feel like we’re watching family home movies. Nobody would document these living conditions on purpose. We are outsiders let into the homes of the marginalized that Japan will not acknowledge exist. That makes it fundamentally powerful and new, we are filled with culture, by experiencing the way it has failed this group, and how they’ve persevered through love.
Shoplifters is worthy of its plaudits. It brings great heart and sincerity to the family drama, creating something that ought to be experienced among family, everywhere. Once it reveals the true, slightly sinister nature of the associations, after we’ve spent the entire film living with them, the message clouds around its new storytelling ambitions. There is a small feeling of being cheated of its previous virtue. Some heart wrenching, moving final shots do a good job of settling these feelings but the feeling persists. As the Palme d’Or suggests, Shoplifters is an incredible, rare document from Japan, likely to be treasured as a big cultural moment in filmmaking.