‘Shoplifters’ asks, what is the true meaning of family?

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s slow reveal of who these people are, and what they mean to each other, has its mystery story aspects, but this is essentially a character study.

Magnolia Pictures/AP
Miyu Sasaki (l.) and Jyo Kairi star in 'Shoplifters.'

The winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Japan’s entry for the best foreign language film Oscar, “Shoplifters,” written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, opens with 12-year-old Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Osamu (Lily Franky), presumably his father, exchanging covert hand signals in a supermarket as a prelude to pilfering. Clearly they’ve done this before.

Heading home, they encounter a crying 5-year-old child, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), alone and apparently neglected by her parents. Torn about what to do, they take her back with them, if only to provide a temporary refuge. It is then that we encounter the extended Shibata family, which appears to be a tightknit, impoverished, multi-generational assemblage hidden away from the street, in tight quarters, in a run-down section of Tokyo. 

As the film incrementally unwinds, we discover they are not altogether who they seem to be. The overarching question
Kore-eda is posing is this: What is the true meaning of family?

Kore-eda’s slow reveal of who these people are, and what they mean to each other, has its mystery story aspects, but this is essentially a character study, or at least it tries to be, and not a puzzle picture. He fills in each of the main players leisurely, in snatches.

Osamu is a day laborer on construction sites; his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), works in a large laundry, sometimes filching stuff left in the clothing. Her sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), works in a soft-core peep show emporium. Hatsue (the great Kirin Kiki, who died in September) is the grandmother whose pension checks from her deceased husband, illegally obtained, are the family’s financial mainstay, such as it is.

Kore-eda (“After the Storm,” “Like Father, Like Son”) is renowned for his humanistic touches, and, although I’ve often found those touches to be grace notes rather than resounding chords, “Shoplifters” is somewhat less ready-made for obvious sentiment than some of his previous work. His handling of the youngest and oldest members of the Shibata tribe is especially delicate. 

Yuri, who bears the marks on her body of parental physical abuse, is almost mute at first. She is wary of her newfound family, and Shota, who teaches her how to shoplift, resents the addition of a new child into the fold. Her gradual blossoming, even if it is at the service of con artistry, is wonderful to watch, for at least she is happy. “Shoplifters” may deal in moral consequences, but it is hardly moralistic.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the marvel of Kiki’s performance is that Hatsue never devolves into grandmotherly fuddyism. Hatsue is a tough cookie. Her larcenous streak is as ever present as the flashes of gentleness. The last shot we see of her in “Shoplifters,” as she surveys her makeshift family from under a beach umbrella at the shore, is piercingly affecting. She seems at that moment to be both rueful and beyond the reach of regret. I’ve been an admirer of Kiki’s work for years, not only in several other Kore-eda films but also in Naomi Kawase’s “Sweet Bean,” where she played with supreme grace a gentle
pancake-maker with leprosy. Her death is a major loss to film.  

Despite all that is good about “Shoplifters,” I found the central conceit bothersome. We are placed in the position of discovering who these people really are – a family linked by crime – but the revelations are all on one side – our side. 

The Shibatas, after all, already know who they are, and so there’s a certain thinnness to the film’s conception. If we knew from the get-go who they were, the film might not have worked as well as a species of detective story, but neither would it have relied so heavily on aha moments. I also don’t think Kore-eda’s implicit thesis about what truly constitutes a family is such an earth-
shatterer. It’s not exactly news that we don’t get to choose who our parents or siblings are, or that we can feel deep familial attachments to those to whom we are unrelated. In a great film, Kore-eda’s thesis would be the starting point, not its culmination.

And his attempts to indict Japanese society for the plight of the Shibatas rings a bit false, especially when we observe some of its members toward the end engaging in the disposal of a corpse in a way that comes across as more pathological than poignant.

But in the end, Kore-eda, for all the cooked-up moments in “Shoplifters,” knows where the heart of his story is. Its final, wrenching fadeout, with little Yuri navigating her bereft new life, is beyond praise. Grade: B+ (Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. In Japanese with English subtitles.)

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