Shoplifters: family, love, and outside forces

Note: I detail specific scenes from the film. These are not necessarily spoilers, or even major plot point reveals. However, this post is a deeper dive. If you like watching clean slate, you might want to read this after the fact. Just saying… 🙂

Shoplifters is not director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first foray into the world of families. He is well regarded for several other films along similar thematic threads, including After the Storm and Like Father, like Son. With this latest, he has added one more compelling entry to his emotionally driven repertoire. Shoplifters sends us deep once again into Kore-eda’s study of familial relations, and is a triumphant meditation and manifesto on what family is and how it is we make one.

The film follows an outsider family as they struggle to make ends meet by way of fraud and shoplifting to supplement their meager incomes. At the film’s beginning, the slumpy down-and-out father Osamu and his son Shota walk into a grocery store and, by a series of maneuvers and tricks, successfully steal a bookbag full of items. On their way home, they discover a child, Yuri, left out in the cold of her parent’s apartment. Osamu and Shota hear the yelling from inside the house, the obvious neglect of Yuri, and decide to take her home and feed her.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

Shoplifters…is a triumphant meditation and manifesto on what family is and how it is we make one.

At home they find their little family who, as the film moves along, reveal their various employment statuses and lives: father Osamu works in construction but is injured early in the film; Shota, the son, helps Osamu steal food and goods; mother Nobuyo works at a laundry cleaner and pilfers trinkets from the clothes she cleans; grandmother Hatsue survives on her late husband’s pension, which is shared with the rest of the family; her granddaughter, Aki, works at a hostess club/chat cafe. When Yuri, the abandoned child, is taken in by the family, they decide to keep her (“steal” her) and hide her from her abusive parents and the authorities. Thus begins the slow closing-in of the outside world, looking for this child, on their private safehaven.

The induction of Yuri into the family becomes a major theme of the film. What is family and if you could choose your own family what would that look like? Nobuyo and Hatsue hold this conversation several times, pondering it for themselves and the rest of the members. The greater revelations by the film’s end make these conversations deeper than their at-first obvious exposition. Only when looking back do we realize the nesting doll of relations: how Yuri connects to the family, the family’s perceived connections to each other, how they connect to the outside world, and what the world sees looking back at them.

Addressing these questions may best start with a scene halfway through the film showing Aki at her hostess job. She is, in some ways, the family’s most disinterested partner, ambivalent to who they are to her. One of her usual clients is a man she takes to a chat room (a place to talk and literally cuddle, no sexual contact) where they talk about their lives. Becoming deeply aware of his tribulations, she holds him moments before he goes, as he leaves her with tears in his eyes. Hard to believe that the love emanating from her home life has not inspired the upswell of affection and warmth Aki delivers.

And that home life is striking. Shoplifters strength lies in its overwhelming depth and beauty of familial interactions, ones that in the latter half of the film become even more poignant on realizing this family’s secrets and the outside forces that want to rip it apart. Heart-aching scenes in the small house of grandmother Hatsue become pictures of mournful memorial as much as they do bright hope.

Hearing fireworks on a summer night, the family all lean out from underneath their roof, big smiles on their faces, searching the sky in joy. In one of countless tearjerker segments, Nobuyo holds Yuri in her arms explaining to her what love is, that it wasn’t in the harm that she received from her parents, but here now in what they’re living together. The slow and tender foreplay of Osamu and Nobuyo, who rarely have sex, is as awkward and innocent as it might have been in their youth. In another scene, Osamu goofily shows the children a magic trick that nearly makes us forget the scoundrel life that they lead outside their home. The grandmother sews Yuri’s clothing, and heals the child of rashes and wounds. A playful moment between Nobuyo and Yuri transforms into an emotional comparison of wrists scars from irons, Nobuyo’s from work and Yuri’s from abuse, that show the deeper-than-blood connections they have.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

…strength lies in its overwhelming depth and beauty of familial interactions…

Stellar performances further the film’s heart. No one is lacking. Their home world feels lived-in and genuine: the subtlety in facial expressions, the small and tender dealings, the nuances of their familiarity are evidence of Kore-eda’s masterful direction. The film’s final act of performances solidify this troupe’s incredible talent, especially in the several crucial scenes of actors facing camera dead-on. Sakura Ando’s execution in these instances is especially wrenching.

Setting, too, takes an important role in conjuring from these actors the intimacy of desperate times felt and the love to overcome their crushing space. The especially tight quarters of grandmother’s house—with its menagerie of reading material, random boxes, coats and clothing—creates a hectic and uncomfortable atmosphere that forces us to feel the family’s arguments, their poking-funs, and casual discussions. Colors in this film are slightly subdued, lots of browns and grays in the grandmother’s house contrasted with the dollops of bright in people’s clothing and the sunny exteriors, giving everything a faded feel, as if something is bound to be lost here. Nowhere is portrayed the sleeker, modern neon-lit side of Tokyo: instead, an aged and worn sensibility hovers over everything, something tired and old and cramped.

Perhaps one of the most affecting aspects of Shoplifters is its telling relevance to contemporary times. Contextually, present day Japan is losing an historically large amount of its population and has been in steady decline for at least a decade (the rest of world soon to follow), which lends gravitas to the bonds of family created here, as if they are the vestiges of an old order being preserved by any way possible. The film addresses, in part becomes answer to, aspects of isolation and loneliness in Japanese culture, the effect of “celibacy syndrome,” the supposed phenomenon of sexlessness in Japan. Sociological theories aside, which admittedly are themselves debated, and not to localize the film too much, global concerns about modern relationships raise this film’s emotional core to even greater heights. This is not simply a localized expression or critique of family life, but a poetic treatise celebrating human companionship in the gray modernizing world. The characters at their brightest and best moments are a living manifesto on how to create family, in fact form community, in a world of degraded relations. Each character’s greatest familial successes beautifully render new forms of doing family, though bearing also the caveats in how hard that can be.

An abstract illustration by Luke Bartolomeo.

…a poetic treatise celebrating human companionship in the gray modernizing world.

Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is a film that may need more than one watch to cement the implications of revelations later in its story. Far from being a moralistic tale, the film examines the complexity of people who are bound by means of survival, messy as that is, who find a way to love and care for each other. They are not without their faults, however, and their life together, by film’s end, is deeply affected, being caught in the balance of survival and self-preservation against that of love and sacrifice for each other. Shoplifters is a moving contemporary drama on what actually makes love work, and a testament against the forces of the outside world attempting to crush it.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Release Year: 2018
Runtime: 121 minutes

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