A gentle and emotionally intelligent look at the meaning of family in contemporary Japan. Empathetic, quiet and in-tune with human fragility, this year’s Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters explores the humane need for belonging and connection. Wondering if you can ‘choose’ your family, Hirokazu Koreeda once again perfects the art of drawing genuine heartbreak from an audience without the need for oversaturated theatrics or cliché dramatic tricks.
Shoplifters focuses on a small group of impoverished people living together in a tiny, cramped house in Tokyo. Although not related by blood, the group all consider themselves – and operate as- a family. The eldest being Hatsue, ‘the grandmother,’ who supplies the family with her dead husband’s pension. The ‘mother and father’ being Nobuyo and Osamu, Nobuyo spends her days on a ‘work-share’ scheme at a laundry facility while Osamu works in construction. On the side, they shoplift to provide for their family. Their young adopted son, Shota, helps with the shoplifting, and Aki, the ‘older sister’ works at a peep-show.
One evening Osamu and Shota find a young girl locked out in the snow, Yuri. They take her home for the night, where everyone seems to be against the idea of bringing in another hungry mouth to feed. However, once they find out she has been bruised and beaten, they have no choice but to take her in as another addition to the family. From here several issues arise as Yuri appears as missing on national television and the family are stuck with what to do with her.
Koreeda flourishes in his ability to have a deep understanding of and love for his characters. He manages to effortlessly create a hyper-realistic portrayal of family bonds, and shines in his ability to produce anthropomorphic film. While the plot may be almost non-existent, Shoplifters is packed to the brim with insightful and touching moments on what brings humans together. In one touching sequence, Nobuyo and Yuri share their iron burn scars with each other while bathing, an example of how human connection goes beyond the family tree. Nobuyo shows Yuri the true meaning of love and motherhood. One of the pair’s most precious moments is when Nobuyo explains to Yuri that although it might be what she’s been taught, beatings never come from a place of love. “This is love” she quotes as she holds her adopted daughter in a warm embrace. The gentle pacing of the film means Koreeda has time to dollop generous amounts of detail and space for his characters to grow; each character feels real and each connection is personal.
Naturalistic performances and detailed set design helps bring the Shibata home to life. Attention to what’s going on in both foreground and background means every shot feels like a living, breathing glimpse into reality. Windows and doors of the small shack are used to reveal the wider, busy outside world of Tokyo. While crammed shots of towers of boxes and household junk reveal an innate homeliness and feeling of safety to the misfits’ hideout. Watching how the family share dinner together and communicate makes you feel like you’re sitting right in their living room with them. Koreeda makes even the smallest, most mundane things of the everyday look spectacular and warming.
Shoplifters supplies a sensitive look at the shunned of society; exploring how harsh economics systems create the need for petty crime. Delving into how delusion and an ‘as long as the shop doesn’t go bankrupt’ attitude makes crime seem so natural to young Shota. One of the film’s most stirring points is when Shota starts to question his place in the family. With his struggle to call Osamu ‘dad’ and his mixed feelings regarding shoplifting, it draws out an important question on the self-serving nature of ‘family’ and childhood naivety when it comes to accepting anything your family tells you.
Overall, Shoplifting is filled with sincerity and delicacy, as it takes an empathetic and layered look at what we call ‘family living’. Delicate enough to never preach or force reactions but gripping enough to deliver true heartbreak. Koreeda presents a graceful tragedy regarding the complicated nature of co-dependence and delusional attitudes held on what is ‘family’.
Written by Abi Aherne