Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 film “Shoplifters” (Manbiki kazoku) illustrates the life of a Japanese family as they navigate life in poverty in contemporary Tokyo. The film was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and was screened at the Dana Auditorium as part of the Hirschfield International Series.
As Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) have no reliable source of income, the family survives on shoplifting and grandmother Hatsue’s (Kirin Kiki) pension. One evening as Osamu and his son Shota (Kairi Jo) are walking home from the store with their stolen groceries, they discover Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl who they suspect is being abused by her parents. The family proceeds to take Juri in as one of their own.
Every scene is its own concept that presents us with a new palette of rich hues. Shots are long and still, allowing us to take in the many shades unfolding in front of us that shift from cool to warm to reflect changes in mood and atmosphere. Kore-eda’s visuals are so captivating by themselves that merely sitting in the auditorium feels gluttonous.
Equally enchanting is the realism of the film’s set design. The family’s miniscule apartment looks so lived-in that it is difficult to think of it as artificial. Whether it be empty cardboard boxes stacked in the kitchen or the sitting cushions scattered across the floor, the positioning of every piece of clutter seems essential. As the family sits around the low table in their ramshackle living room, the slurping of noodles dominates the soundscape. Conversation is sporadic and loosely scripted. Reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s animations, Kore-eda makes the most mundane of events feel charming. There is nothing excessive here.
Despite its elegant visuals, “Shoplifters” makes no excuses for the family’s outlandishness. Aside from their kleptomaniac tendencies, their internal dynamics are questionable. Shota, Osamu and Nobuyo repeatedly negotiate whether the boy is “ready” to call them his parents. Furthermore, as Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is pictured comforting clients at her job at a Tokyo sex club, it is clear that her idea of genuine intimacy is skewed. There seems to be little difference in her interactions with the men that pass through the chat room and the way in which she talks to her grandmother. By not explaining these quirks Kore-eda maintains a steady ironic distance between his characters and the audience, thus adding yet another dimension to an already complex film.
It is this obscurity that leads us to consider the film’s central questions. Although we know that Juri has been forcefully taken from her biological parents, it is difficult to convince yourself that she belongs with anyone else. As Nobuyo and Juri compare burn scars on their grimy bathroom floor, the sense of genuine care for one another is undeniable. Blurring the lines between right and wrong, “Shoplifters” makes us step outside conventional definitions and ask ourselves what really defines a family.
Taking into account that Osamu and Nobuyo essentially kidnapped Juri with little apprehension, it should come as no surprise that it is not the only morally questionable act the two have committed. After Shota is caught shoplifting by store clerks and the family’s past is revealed to us, the truth unfolds faster than we can even begin to process it. In contrast to the steady, harmonious scenes that have built our trust in the family over the course of the film, flashes of interrogations, police badges and their empty apartment leave us to fill the gaps in ourselves.
Perhaps this is exactly what makes the film so taxing to follow. Kore-eda repeatedly reminds us that our assumptions and conclusions are of no relevance, and that his film is not intended to be comfortable. “Shoplifters” operates on its own plane and on its own terms. It demands to be seen not as a piece of entertainment, but as a sharp analysis of the most basic unit of society.
Watching “Shoplifters” is as much a cerebral experience as it is a visual one: the film is relentlessly focused and expects nothing less from its audience. With his skilled direction and the poignant questions that the film raises, Kore-eda creates a grip that holds us still for a full two hours.