Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters is a revelation, the culmination of years of study on a particular theme, a movie that brings together all of the director’s strengths and, for once, almost none of his weaknesses. It could easily have been a solid, moving drama-comedy, but what we learn in the third act turns it into something far slipperier and more complex. It makes a very conscious choice to give us just enough information to feel uncomfortable, but not enough to make conclusive decisions about the characters at the end of the film.
That kind of ambiguity, which appeared often in Koreeda’s early work (Distance, Maboroshi) but not so much in his recent work (Our Little Sister, Still Walking) reminded me of the equally brilliant Asghar Farhadi, whose films usually present some sort of violent incident (that the audience doesn’t actually see) and then provide just enough information to keep everyone arguing over who the guilty party is. Farhadi and Koreeda both respect their audiences enough to allow them time and space to think, and to present the possibility that there is not always a clear answer, not a clear verdict of guilty or innocent.
I’ve complained in the past about Koreeda’s recent tendency toward sentimentality, especially in contrast with his earlier films, which went for restrained emotion where movies like Still Walking cranked up the piano soundtrack and over-explained things that could have been left unsaid. This film makes up for all that. It is most certainly a Koreeda film, but it feels infused with new life and vitality. It’s also refreshingly angry–not only at the individual tragedies that surround the lives of the characters, but at the failures of the various institutions (government, workplaces, media) that could have helped them. This is a rarity for Japanese cinema, where depicting poverty or suffering is perfectly acceptable, but direct criticism of the government and its failures is still taboo (which might explain the hostile reaction the film has received from at least one Japanese right-winger).
Shoplifters concerns a “family” (their exact relationships are somewhat ambiguous for much of the film) of people living on the cusp of homelessness who survive through a combination of menial jobs, shoplifting, and pension fraud. As the film opens, young Shota (Jyo Kairi) and the older Osamu (Lily Franky) discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a miserable-looking girl who seems to have been abandoned by her parents. They take her home, and as she gradually becomes a part of their strange but undeniably warm family, we learn more about each of the characters: grandmother Hatsue (the always wonderful Kiki Kirin), who’s supporting everyone with fraudulently collected pension payments, mother figure Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), whose prickly exterior frequently gives way to genuine affection, her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who clings to her grandmother and works in a sort of peep show, Nobuyo’s husband Osamu, who dotes on the children but also enlists their help in shoplifting, and young Shota, who’s wary of the new family member but eventually warms to her. For Yuri, who’s clearly been abused, this new family may be a bit odd, but it’s likely also the kindest one she’s ever been a part of.
It’s obvious that this idyllic situation can’t last, and the film creates real tension by making us wonder exactly when the family’s very fragile world will come crashing down. For the most part, though, we’re allowed to revel in their warmth and camaraderie because of what Koreeda does so well: creating remarkably real connections between characters, to the point that we genuinely believe we’re watching a group of people who’ve been bickering, teasing, and loving each other for years.
There’s a beautiful scene in the middle of the film when Nobuyo and Osamu have sex, but as with a similar scene in Koreeda’s Maboroshi, the focus is on what happens right afterward, not on the act itself. What Koreeda manages to capture in that moment—Osamu’s genuine glee, Nobuyo’s radiant and positively glowing body, their playfulness with each other—is magical.
So many other quiet moments made me gasp. Kiki Kirin’s Hatsue on the beach, mouthing “thank you, thank you” to no one as she watches her family play in the distance. Nobuyo hugging Yuri from behind as tears silently roll down her face. A quiet and heartbreakingly honest conversation between Osamu and Shota, lying side by side on a futon in the dark.
While he certainly did research for the film, Koreeda says that he wasn’t inspired by a single case, though there was one that stuck with him: a family that stole fishing poles and were caught because they hadn’t sold the fishing poles for money, they’d just kept them in their home. For Koreeda, the idea that maybe the family just wanted to fish—that they were motivated by something other than money—inspired him. Similarly, the family in Shoplifters is certainly more idealized than a real-life group of people in similarly desperate circumstances, but in the world of this movie, at least, it’s moving—and wrenching—to imagine that they might be better people, and to imagine what that might mean when they’re found out.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Mayu Matsuoka proves that she’s definitely a talent to be reckoned with, completely disappearing into a role that bears no resemblance to her star-making, goofball turn in 2017’s Tremble All You Want. The two children (in their first film roles) are completely believable (Koreeda has a knack for getting wonderfully authentic performances from child actors). The real standout, though, is Ando, clearly one of the most talented actresses working in Japan today. As the layers of her character are slowly peeled away, Nobuyo is revealed to be the glue that holds this fragile family together. There are so many sides to her–maternal figure, practical manager, fierce protector, lover, tough-as-nails laborer, abused child–and Ando makes every one of them believable.
There has been no shortage of Japanese films that have explored the lives of people living in poverty recently—the Hokkaido-set films of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and Mipo Oh, Hiroshi Shoji’s Ken and Kazu, Masaharu Take’s 100 Yen Love. What those films frequently lacked, though, was a sense of warmth or kindness—the stories were mostly about human cruelty and the dark side effects of financial and emotional desperation. If hope existed, it was something dangled briefly in front of the characters, only to be cruelly snatched away. Those films also generally shied away from a direct critique of Japanese society itself. Koreeda’s film manages to be both grittily realistic and full of warmth, which is arguably what makes the final quarter of the film so gut-wrenching. We know their happiness can’t last, but Koreeda gives us the gift of letting these characters, who we’ve grown so fond of, live in a self-made world of decency and kindness for much longer than another director might.
The film ends with plenty of questions left unanswered. Did this family really love each other? How much of it was a performance? Were they using each other? And if they were, does it make them bad people? I was reminded of Elif Batuman’s fascinating portrait of Japan’s rent-a-family industry, which argues, among other things, that it’s almost impossible to separate money from intimacy, much as we might scoff at people who pay for hugs or the appearance of a relationship. Maybe Koreeda’s characters did have ulterior motives. Maybe they also had a real bond with one another. The movie is richer for suggesting that both truths are possible.