Arts movie review

A family bound not by blood, but shoplifting, steals your heart

Critically-acclaimed film uncovers the struggles of a damaged and forgotten Japanese family

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Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), Juri (Sasaki Miyu), and Osamu (Lily Franky) play together in 'Shoplifters.'
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Shoplifters (Manabiki Kazoku)
Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kirin
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Fatherly businessmen are uniformly packed into train cars like sardines, mothers carefully place chopsticks next to a steaming dinner days on repeat, and students in crisp navy uniforms bow at right angles as the starting school chime rings. Japanese society is defined by homogeneous organization. But beneath a shell of structure pulses a harsh underworld of oppression, overwork, and exploitation. Shoplifters, a film directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, poignantly uncovers the struggles of an oddball group of people who consider one another family, despite lacking biological relation — a son and a daughter picked off the street, a mother and a father married by crime. Acting as an ensemble piece, the film takes an intimate look into the perspective of each character.

“Husband,” “wife,” “grandmother,” and “children” all live together in a crumbling shack-of-a-house, barely getting by on the meager salary of father-like Osamu’s construction work and motherly Nobuyo’s laundry job. As the title of the movie suggests, the family thrives off daily shoplifting expeditions, whether it be Osamu and makeshift son Shota’s teamwork at the supermarket or Nobuyo’s sneakish pocketing of items from the clothes she cleans. After a successful shoplifting mission, Osamu and boyish Shota spot a young girl, perhaps four years old, sitting alone and cold in an empty house. Noticing the scars and bruises lining her arms and the misery in her empty stare, they bring her home; soon, the young girl, Juri, is a part of their family.

Despite the littered nature of their small home, their life appears idyllic, brimming with loving moments — slurping a feast of instant ramen noodles together, splashing in the waves on a weekend beach trip, listening to fireworks they cannot see… In their cluttered but comfortable abode, they trip over one another with tenderness, laughter reverberating off the narrow walls.

Almost too good to be true, this charm begins to crumble when Shota develops concerns over the morals of shoplifting.

Soon, the dark secrets of the family are revealed. From the teenage daughter Aki’s soft-porn sex work to the grandmother’s addiction to pachinko machine gambling, the impoverished innocence of each character begins to shatter. Although the audience is watching a family comprised of what society considers the bottom of the barrel — those who leech off others without contributing anything — the audience cannot help but cheer them on through their struggles. Juri’s childhood neglect and domestic abuse, the harsh working conditions experienced by the parents, and the sexual exploitation of young girls are some examples of nuanced details that bring to life issues often overlooked in Japan.

This family acts as a microcosm of society; from the surface, they appear to live a structured life, yet behind the curtains lays the tale of damaged outcasts. When the family takes Juri into their home, is it an act of abduction or salvation? By not following the rules of an organized society, are they the ones who have wronged, or rather, are they the marginalized victims of a wronged system? Who has truly been “shoplifted”?

The typical American audience might need patience to sit through the measured film, but for those who do, they will be rewarded with a tale that is heart-wrenching and raw. Beautiful cinematography and natural performances by famed actors paint a masterpiece made up of delicate, brushstroke details, from moments to looks and soft touches to smiles. Shoplifters, unlike its titular connotation, is a film of compassion.