Fresh off a Palme d’Or win at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters centres around the Shibatas, a family living in poverty in suburban Tokyo. Cramming seven characters into a bungalow, writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda mounts an absorbing drama about who these people are and how much they mean to one another.
In this setting, the winters are always too cold and the summers are always intolerably hot, with the common problem being that they are almost too poor to get by in any season. That said, the Shibata family seem to be doing better than other local families, and that’s partly because Osamu (Lily Franky) is teaching his young son Shota (Kairi Jō) how to steal groceries and other essentials.
Osamu justifies this to himself and his family by saying that if someone hasn’t bought it yet, then it doesn’t belong to anyone, and as long as the shop doesn’t go bankrupt, it’s fine. Keeping this in mind, things escalate when father and son encounter Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old girl with burns on her arm, left alone in the cold. Initially taking her in for a warm meal and a bed for the night, they come to treat her like a daughter, even when her whereabouts become a hot topic in the national news.
With echoes of last year’s The Florida Project, it’s a film that looks at the perspective of young children learning to grow up in this environment, mainly through Yuri’s eyes. Gradually, it expands to take in the secrets within and between each of the other family members, like an emotional mystery story.
One of the most satisfying aspects of the film is the gradual resolution of the family’s unusual behaviour. Beautifully acted all around, these characters are utterly sympathetic from beginning to end. The Shibatas are repeatedly failed throughout the film by the barely legitimate gig economy that supports them beyond their light-fingered exploits. Even though they’re not on the right side of commonly accepted morality, almost everything they do is out of pure love for one another.
The film repeatedly touches upon love as a transactional thing. Teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works as a performer at a peep show, baring all for silent, barely visible clients on the other side of a mirror. Elsewhere, Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) supports the family with her pension payments, while also tucking away cash from a devious scheme of her own and putting a clause in her will to ensure she doesn’t die “a lonely death”.
In the foreground, Yuri’s arrival into their family is not a loose thread that unravels their situation, but more like the tie that binds them even closer together. Shota is initially jealous of his new sister, prompting some self-exploration about his role in the miniature emotional economy of their family unit, but comes to train her just as Osamu has been training him. Likewise, the entire family has to adapt to the pressure of taking in someone new.
It’s telling that Osamu’s five-finger discount system relies upon a variety of signals and distractions, because in a similar fashion, the film is able to pull off a masterful sleight of hand. While you’re more engrossed in the family dynamics with each new piece of information that’s added to the puzzle, Kore-eda becomes ever more adept at stealing tears from you with the most innocuous turn of phrase.
Shoplifters is a terrific and transfixing film, filled with fascinating and sympathetic characters from top to bottom. With an extraordinary cast guided by Kore-eda’s sure writing and direction, the film cooks up a peculiar brand of emotional intrigue that will stay with you long after it has ended. It may be a story about an unusual family, but its statements about that family feel universal.
Shoplifters is in selected UK cinemas now.