Shoplifters is only my third film from director Hirokazu Kore-eda, but based off of this in combination with Nobody Knows, I am convinced he has proven himself one of the most capable masters of tackling life in poverty.
A makeshift family comes together and navigates life; Osamu acts as the father of the family, teaching young Shota how to shoplift. The wife Nobuyo works with laundry, stealing whatever trinkets she can find forgotten in pockets. Elderly Hatsue acts as the matriarch, collecting pensions and running scams, while Aki works at a hostess club. One day, as Osamu and Shota return home, they come across a neglected young girl and end up bringing her into their family, rescuing her from abuse but legally kidnapping her.
Kore-eda balances this tale in such a way that we are fully engaged with their struggle to survive while keeping us at enough distance to question who these people are. Their connections are blurred, to the audience and even each other. They operate as a family, living together and having each other’s backs, but they rarely allow the others into their internal struggles. Kore-eda knows to let questions linger, adding an air of mystery to an otherwise straightforward tale.
The subject matter feels like the perfect topic for a slow cinema film, and it carries the painterly aesthetic of that movement, but Shoplifters is anything but slow. All six members have their own poignant tales, bringing life into each scene. This is not a tale of people wallowing in misery, but rather finding beauty in the most surprising places.
The central theme of Shoplifters is the concept of what makes a family. Is it simply biological, or does it really consist of the people who care for you? This question appears to have its most obvious answer in the little girl, Yuri, who finds safety in this new home. But Kore-eda knows it’s not that simple – as Osamu and Nobuyo observe, they feel like broken people, and what do they truly have to offer? They give love and their own warped sense of care, but they can’t offer a brighter future or security.
Shoplifters exists in a similar visual realm to Ozu films; the central focus is framing. Kore-eda perfectly considers the boundary of the image, where each object is placed, crafting a vibrant visual landscape even in desperate settings. A particularly standout sequence finds Aki performing at work; the way her schoolgirl outfit clashes with the usual imagery, the patron writing on a white board to communicate as he sits obscured in near-total darkness on the other side of glass, the surprisingly touching moment they share as they go back for a direct session. Every shot carries obvious consideration.
That brief moment between Aki and her guest perfectly captures the heart of the film – as broken as people can feel they are, there’s something magnificent about how they can come together, understand one another. Certain directors make similar films and get derided for making ‘poverty porn,’ as if they are simply exploiting the poor for the entertainment of the better off. But there’s no sense of exploitation here – this is an honest tale of fully-realized characters, as true-to-life as it can be. This is not a study of poverty but a celebration of life itself told through the eyes of some of its most vulnerable people.
Works as compellingly mundane as Shoplifters are a rare treat. Kore-eda never comes off as simply trying to spread a message; this film is a consideration. He wants us to ponder our own connections, how we view the world. Whenever an easy answer seems to bubble up, Kore-eda squashes it back down, culminating in a harrowing finale. Kore-eda never offers us answers, but rather gives us questions we rarely think to ask.
4.5 Stars Out of 5