* * * *
Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and rightfully so, Shoplifters (2018, Japanese, Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda) is a mature, thoughtful, and moving portrait of a precarious “family” group living on the verge of homelessness who find solace in each other’s fleeting company. The film shines a light on the poverty experienced by its characters, and asks the audience to question what exactly constitutes a family, and what exactly is the right thing to do in a situation where the ethical and moral math gets complex. I would argue that Shoplifters is short on style, and long on substance. It is the kind of movie you see not for an escape or a distraction from reality, but as a catalyst and a nudge toward further engagement with the world and human beings around you.
Shoplifters focuses on a mostly unrelated clan of people who are all living together under one makeshift roof in present day Tokyo. There are no true main characters, the film’s focus being divided fairly evenly among its ensemble cast. There is Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer who is also a prolific shoplifter and the de facto “father” of the bunch. His wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works for an industrial laundry service, and is perhaps the most clear eyed and responsible of the group. Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is a young woman who works at a hostess club (i.e., she is a kind of sex worker, performing privately for paying clientele). Aki shares a special relationship with Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who lives off of her deceased ex-husband’s pension (which is also paying for the group’s dwelling). Shota (Kairi Jō) is a young boy whom the adult couple in the group “saved” in the past from what are implied to be perilous circumstances. Shota helps Osamu as a kind of wing man on his petty theft operations. The narrative of the film begins with the addition of a new member to this tribe, a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), whom Osamu and Nobuyo suspect is being abused by her parents. They decide to save her as well, bringing her into the fold of their unique collective. We then watch as the addition of Yuri impacts and changes the chemistry and foundations of the group in ways that cannot be undone.
Shoplifters is well cast and all of the actors represent their characters with authenticity. The music in the film is sparse. When it is present, it is mainly there to gently support the images and action on the screen, offering a warm, meditative foundation. The opening scene is an exception to this. Here, we hear a more up front, stylized soundtrack, perhaps meant as a kind of built-in trailer to transport you into the world of the story. The film is shot competently, and the visual elements on the screen are always supporting, never distracting from or taking away from the story. A variety of visual techniques are used to good effect. When we are following the children’s story, or meant to take their perspective, the camera is looking out from inside a closet or is placed low to the floor. There are many shots wherein we are looking from behind something, or looking at a distance at one or more of the characters, as if we are naturally coming across these people in the world. In several scenes, wherein the characters are being interrogated (either informally by a co-worker, or formally by authorities), the camera is facing the character directly in a kind of POV shot, as if we are the ones questioning them. This is a dramatic departure from the overall feel of the film, and highlights how the characters are being made to justify themselves, perhaps rightly or wrongly, in these moments. There is also great use of what seems like a handheld camera during one climactic scene when Shota gets caught by the police, and Yuri is running away. This lends an immediacy to the visuals and carries a direct emotional punch, fitting for the scene. For the most part, the direction and cinematography are understated, taking a back seat to the script and interaction between the characters.
Having said that, I can’t help but make a comparison and contrast with another celebrated foreign language film from 2018, which also tells a compelling story about a group of have-not characters – Roma. Like Shoplifters, Roma gives its characters the respect and nuanced portrait they deserve. Where the films depart is in the role they give to the purely visual elements on the screen. In Roma, the framing of scenes, the cinematography and black and white photography, the meticulously choreographed direction, are all employed to great effect as a means of not only telling the story but also pushing the narrative to places that words and character interaction alone cannot go. While Shoplifters is a beautiful film, with the same heart and authentic, emotional core as Roma, it does not offer its audience the same visual excitement – the joy of spotting a clever visual motif, or of soaking in a breathtakingly composed and framed scene.
Whatever it lacks in style, Shoplifters compensates for in the depth and substance of its narrative. Koreeda, the writer, editor, and director of the film, takes care to present each character’s unique story and give space to their respective struggles. Osamu presents initially as a man who is seemingly content with his life on the fringes of society, happily justifying his petty theft and looking forward to the next minor score. However, when he is around Shota, we hear him yearn to be called “Dad” by the younger boy. He feels a need to be different around Shota, and laments his shortcomings, how the totality of his knowledge and skill revolve around a criminal way of life. Nobuyo is at first difficult to read. It seems like she has adapted to her life, and as a result is perhaps immune to other people and their problems or needs. But in time, we see her extend her genuine love and concern to the children in the group, and become vulnerable around her husband. We eventually learn that she is unable to have children of her own, and this adds a layer of complexity to her character and her interactions with Yuri in particular. Aki has left her blood family and is desperate for a sense of belonging, and to feel loved. She finds a kind of love with one of her clients at the hostess club, and another kind of bond with Hatsue, a bond which she eventually comes to question. Hatsue lives with an abiding fear that she will die alone, and a suspicion that the attention others give her is intimately tied to the financial security she can offer them. She seems embattled, as if she has shrewdly learned to play a game in order to survive. Shota’s internal struggle is perhaps the most clearly pronounced. After the arrival of Yuri to the group, Shota begins to feel a responsibility for her, and a need to shield her from the illegal activity that he had previously accepted as normal. Shota begins to challenge Osamu’s way of life, ultimately bringing about an intervention from the outside world that breaks the group apart.
One of the dominant themes in the film is the idea of a family, and what exactly constitutes a family. In a number of scenes, we hear the characters opine that the family you choose is more important than the family you were born into. We see that Aki has chosen to leave her biological parents for the kinship she feels with the group and in particular with the unrelated Hatsue. We see how both Shota and Yuri are taken from their families, who mistreated or neglected them (in Shota’s case, this is implied, not shown), and find an emotionally fulfilling, though economically insecure, life with the collective. The family group that the characters coalesce into is a generally happy one. Each member has a role, and something they offer to the group. They all sit with each other for meals, seem to enjoy each other’s company and have a genuine concern for one another. At the same time, we are not allowed to pretend that this is a perfect or sustainable situation. Osamu and Nobuyo come to recognize that, even though their intentions may have been good in protecting Yuri and Shota from abuse, it is not their decision to make whether or not these children live with their birth families. Osamu eventually acknowledges that, though he cherishes his relationship with Shota, he is not this boy’s father. He begins to look past his selfish need for the relationship, and think more about what might be best for Shota. Interestingly, it is in doing this that he finally confirms for Shota that he is in fact the closest thing the boy has to a father.
Another major issue explored in the movie is that of poverty, and how a lack of money can lead to ever-present concerns for it, and at the same time complicate human relationships. The title of the film, Shoplifters, puts this issue front and center. Osamu’s shoplifting exploits are initially explained away by him and his wife as harmless; according to them, this kind of stealing is not hurting the store unless the store goes bankrupt, and they’re not hurting anyone in particular as the items they’re stealing don’t yet belong to a customer. However, Shota comes to question whether or not the shoplifting is hurting the shoplifter. In one scene, while he is working with Yuri to steal some items from a store, the shopkeeper catches him in the act, later admonishing him to leave Yuri out of it and not force her to participate. This encounter shakes Shota, and brings him to a critical turning point, a recognition that a life built around theft is not a desirable or ideal one. The film shows again and again how money informs the day to day lives and relationships of the characters. Aki, in a sense, sells her body for money, while Hatsue’s regular visits with the family of her ex-husband are seemingly motivated by the stipend she receives during these visits. Though we are shown that Osamu and Nobuyo have a kind of love for Hatsue, shortly after her death we watch them gleefully discover the private stash of money she left behind.
The message seems to be that, as a result of not having it, money is coloring all of these characters’ interactions and relationships; their day to day lives are suffused with the monotonous concern and obsession over money and where it will come from next. That is not to say that money is poisoning their relationships. I do feel that it is more complicated than that. Even though it is presented as a possibility, I do not believe that the characters are using each other for the financial security or reward they can offer each other. For example, it is suggested at times that the adults are “stealing” the children, not to save them from neglect and abuse, but to basically employ them as assistant shoplifters. I think this is shown to be false in the many scenes wherein Osamu and Nobuyo express genuine love and concern for the children. Likewise, though it is questioned openly by Aki, I do not believe that Osamu and Nobuyo are with each other solely to increase their earning potential. They may not have the ideal marriage, but it is a believable one, and one based on a fulfilling companionship bond.
If you are looking for a movie that will engage you emotionally and jump-start your empathic drive, Shoplifters is for you. I recommend Shoplifters for its thoughtful story and meaningful exploration of complex, fertile themes. The story is told with such compassion that even though there are truly sad elements, and you cannot say that things resolve into a “happy” ending, you do leave the film feeling as though these characters were cared for, loved and respected by the filmmaker. And that in itself sends a powerful message to the audience, a message which has the capacity to yield some actual good in the world outside of the theater.