Throughout Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda offers various images of a multigenerational family living in an apartment that appears to consist of little more than a single room. Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) often occupies the center of the room, which reflects her status as the family’s life force, while Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), a lanky thief and sometime workman, lounges off to the side of the frame. Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), usually sits above the main action in a sideways chamber, a vantage point which physicalizes her initial aloofness, while Osamu and Nobuyo’s son, Shota (Kairi Jō), sit in a closet that the boy has fashioned into a bedroom, enabling him to have a precious scrap of privacy. With little emphatic fuss, these images reveal how this struggling family, which lives on day labor, Hatsue’s pension, and quite a bit of shoplifting, forge a thriving home out of virtually nothing.
In Shoplifters, Kore-eda dramatizes the insidious and relativistic ordinariness of poverty. If one’s poor, particularly as a child, this state of affairs doesn’t seem strange because there’s no means of contrast. For many viewers, the film’s domestic tableaux may feel viscerally cramped, but these compositions also revel in the reassuring coziness of family members living on top of one another in constant communion. Necessity has essentially taken this family back in time, away from television, most phones, and social media at large. Radically, Kore-eda seems at times to be saying that the Japanese recession might’ve been good for the nuclear family unit—a reactionary notion that thematically links the auteur’s work to that of Yasujirō Ozu.
Kore-eda has been frequently compared to Ozu, and their respective work shares other similarities, as recurring obsessions with the dissolution of families and a fondness for leisurely pacing that informs certain quotidian moments with singular, near-magical importance. But Kore-eda shares these qualities with another filmmaker, Mike Leigh, as well. And Kore-eda, like Leigh, also skillfully fuses naturalism with melodrama and caricature, and, subsequently, his films have been misinterpreted in a manner similar to those of Leigh. Talk of the “realism” of Leigh and Kore-eda’s films has been wildly overblown, as these men are both supreme emotional stylists.
The domestic tableaux of Shoplifters, for instance, aren’t conventionally realistic. These images have been carefully choreographed for at least three reasons: for their own spatial beauty; to succinctly reveal character relationships; and to proffer an appealing and partially truthful sentimentality about the camaraderie fostered by fringe living. There’s a paradox to such stylization, however, as these images do feel realistic whenever Kore-eda lingers on them for several long moments, and we come to feel as if we’re not so much consuming a drama as vicariously witnessing warm human life.
Kore-eda conditions us to settle in and enjoy moments of breathtaking poignancy, as when Hatsue notices Nobuyo’s beauty at the beach, offering a motherly benediction that appears to have been years in the making, or when Osamu and Nobuyo allow themselves to be lovers again, presumably after years spent as partners determined to keep a struggling enterprise together. At times, Shoplifters feels like a daydream that might’ve been indulged by the imperiled children of Kore-eda’s far more brutal Nobody Knows.
Yet Shoplifters is tougher than it initially appears to be, as it’s driven by a heartbreaking sense of misdirection. For nearly 90 minutes, Kore-eda follows this family as they take in a young girl, Juri (Miyu Sasaki), who’s been abused and abandoned by her parents, initiating her into a world of petty scams that allows for various adventures and piquant interludes. This informal adoption constitutes kidnapping, of course, as Osamu says himself, and the carelessness of this action charges the narrative with a tension that gradually sours the film’s sense of idyllic rapture. And this tension is exacerbated by dissonances that reveal this cute little familial unit to be an illusion.
The film melodramatically reveals Hatsue, Osamu, and Nobuyo to be more advanced and severe criminals than one would expect given the pains to which Kore-eda has gone to render them dear to us. Their lying is positioned by Kore-eda as a metaphor for the lies of all families and society at large, as partially necessary lies designed to inflate the statures of diminished individuals so as to will a micro-society within a mass society that’s abandoned its citizenry. Yet the parent figures of Shoplifters are also out for themselves, and the moral drama of Kore-eda’s vision springs from the struggle the adult characters wage to reconcile their needs with the needs of their family and society. Ironically, the adults in this film earn their children’s love when they’re willing, out of truly selfless devotion, to sacrifice it.