Japanese drama Shoplifters is a heart-stealing masterpiece about the gentlest of Tokyo crime families.
The Tokyo shoplifters of Kore-eda’s gentle and tender masterpiece certainly look like a family, although one in dire economic straits. Chief among them is chirpy father Osamu (Lily Franky), who schools his son Shota (Kairi Jō) in the art of supermarket thievery.
Returning from a raid one evening, they find a young girl in the cold, her parents squabbling nearby. They take her to their house – a ramshackle hovel filled with hoarded junk. It’s hard to imagine how the family live in it, or a how a film crew was squeezed in, for that matter. The cramped quarters are made all the more claustrophobic by Kore-eda’s tendency to shoot through confined spaces: doorways, windows, halls, closets – a technique learnt from Yasujirō Ozu, an icon of Japanese cinema.
Elderly matriarch Hatsue (veteran actor Kirin Kiki) feeds the scared, shivering girl and discovers her body is covered with scars. That night, she wets the bed. Sure signs of abuse.
Whether this is an abduction or a rescue matters little to Kore-eda, who has explored this territory before in Like Father, Like Son, and tends to reserve judgment. As should we. What becomes clear, though, is that the threads that hold the family together are more tenuous than at first glance. As seasons change, as we spend more time in the rickety household, we find Osamu begging for Shota to call him Dad. Hatsue visits another family, a meeting that only sows more doubt.
There will be revelations. The final 20 minutes of Shoplifters is devastating and acutely troubling. But it only feels this way because Kore-eda has spent most of the film simply observing these scattered lives, curiously probing their idiosyncrasies, their doubts.
Key to it all is Nobuyo, wife, mother and holder of dark secrets. She is played by Sakura Andô and I’m yet to figure out what makes watching her so captivating; there’s rawness, humanity and something magical.
At the close, Shoplifters returns to a scene of quiet domesticity. What emerges is a sense of dedication and, above all, love. As one character says with a worldly shrug: “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”
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This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.