This is a short review of the movie [English title] 'Shoplifters'. It is a film that examines aspects of the underbelly of contemporary Japanese society.
In Japan working hard and consuming are powerful ideals. ‘Shoplifters’ (‘Shoplifting Family’ is the original title) is an award winning movie that attacks the foundations of such thinking in the framework of a subtle and moving family portrait.
The opening scene introduces us to Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his fresh faced pre-teen son Shota (Jyo Kairi) as two of the titular thieves about to steal from a store. A weaker movie would apply conversation, voiceover or explanatory captions at this point. Here we have the highly capable Director Hirokazu Kore-eda who knows film is fundamentally a visual medium. We can see from the gestures and body language alone that this is something the two are habituated to. The other understated aspect of this is the choice of products they glom, indicating character motivation. They aren’t taking high priced fancy stuff, but food to survive. Though later we see there’s also a degree of self-delusion and half-baked justification for some of their choices. The biggest being the kidnapping of a four year old girl Juri (Sasaki Miyu) they happen upon on the way home. We hear her parents having a major domestic dispute. This makes it evident the girl isn’t wanted and since Osamu and his family aren’t asking for a ransom, it can’t really be kidnapping, can it?!
How many of us would act that way? Not many, but Kore-eda pulls off a masterful technique of showing events entirely from the hermetically sealed perspective of the shoplifters themselves. Somehow we are pulled into understanding their view, since there are no other major characters throughout the movie. Yes it’s a bit manipulative but it works and isn’t the same as excusing it, since he mitigates this by showing morally grey areas throughout. For example, Osamu is callously exploited as a day labourer on a building site. He is injured and of course receives no compensation. While recuperating he justifies the theft of expensive fishing rods by saying selling them will cover expenses for the month while he is recovering. You could argue that in the circumstances there is some justification for this. Though it comes at the price of involving their newest charge in the theft in a small but crucial moment, thus inducting a true innocent into their way of approaching the world. Later he and Shota are seen fishing with the rods. They haven’t been sold after all. This isn’t really ‘Feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish etc’. It is more symbolic of the short term rationale a long-term thief uses to excuse his actions.
In addition to the pater familias and son, we are introduced to his tough wife Nobuyo (Ando Sakura). There is also the sly Grandmother (Kiki Kirin) who exploits the emotions of distant relatives to extort money to supplement her pension. It may not be right in some ways, but she is an old woman doing what she needs to in a system where welfare barely covers basics. Rounding off the group is sister Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) who performs behind a mirror at a sex show. She fumbles for a real connection with another human being but is cheated by circumstances, an example of the way the director emblematically holds a mirror up to society itself.
It is clear none of the characters are working in a way that mainstream society would condone. Nevertheless, Kore-eda shows through tightly focused interactions that these people have feelings and are making choices that may not always be noble, but are definitely human. They lie and steal but also show solidarity. They feel joy in simple things such as fireworks and going to the beach, they laugh, love (both emotionally and physically), eat and die. Most significantly of all, as the closely observed contact between the characters plays out, we are forced to address the hypocrisy of a society that talks about the importance of ‘family’ yet allows the sort of physical abuse and neglect Juri receives. In contrast, the supposed misfits look after her and each other. It’s a society that can sometimes provide materially as long as you play by the rules, go to school and sell yourself to the corporation, but has lost its heart.
Towards the end of the movie some of the oddities of the familial situation Osamu and associates have woven, are unravelled. Grace notes and allusions earlier in the story are teased out and amplified. Just when we think we understand the situation Kore-eda has shown us, he takes the story to another level. The details of this are best left for a viewing rather than being spoilt. It is enough to say that the denouemont is well worth it, with the acting of Ando being a particular strength.
Kore-eda has crafted a beautifully realised indictment of contemporary society as it operates in an advanced capitalist economy. The acting is superbly naturalistic, the camera work spare and all the more effective for that, the actions of the characters are muddled and grey as in real life and the movie doesn’t look for easy answers. Best of all, it pays re-watching to be fully appreciated. Steal a view today.