“A family is what you make it.” Marge Kennedy, author of children’s educational texts, made this observation back in the 1990s, and probably didn’t have Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters in mind when she did. In his second release of 2018 (following July’s minor but very good The Third Murder), Kore-eda ushers Kennedy’s philosophy toward an extreme logical conclusion, wrapping the story of a family on society’s fringes around a moral curveball thrown down the middle during Japan’s economic recession.
The Shibatas—Osamu and Nobuyo (Lily Franky and Sakura Ando), daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), son Shota (Kairi Jo), and grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiri)—live in tight quarters together, their flat crowded and disheveled. Space is at a premium, and money’s tight. Osamu and Shota solve the latter problem by palming food from the local market, a delicately choreographed dance we see them perform in the film’s opening sequence: They walk from aisle to aisle, communicating to each other through hand gestures while running interference on market employees, a piano and percussion soundtrack painting a scene out of Ocean’s 11. It’s a heist of humble purpose.
Once they finish, Shota having squirreled away sufficient goods in his backpack, father and son head home and stumble upon little Yuri (Miuy Sasaki) huddling in the cold on her parents’ deck. Osamu invites her over for dinner in spite of the Shibata’s meager circumstances. When he and Nobuyo go to return her to her folks later on, they hear sounds of violence from within their apartment and think better of it. So Yuri becomes the new addition to the Shibata household, a move suggesting a compassionate streak in Osamu that slowly crinkles about the edges as Shoplifters unfolds. The longer the audience stays with the Shibatas, the more red flags he raises, starting with a visit from a man checking in on Hatsue, who appears unaware that she doesn’t live alone.
Something doesn’t add up. Something feels amiss. We know for certain that Yuri doesn’t belong with the Shibatas, at least not legally, but Shoplifters argues that rather than kidnapped, she’s been rescued. It’s not like Osamu’s seeking a ransom, after all. He justifies taking Yuri the same way he justifies theft: Goods taking up residence in stores don’t belong to anybody? Yuri belonged, of course, but did she belong to a family? What even is a family? Nobuyo clutches Yuri for dear life when she and Osamu listen to the telltale signs of domestic abuse echoing from her parents’ pad, her motherly instinct activating in response to clear danger. She isn’t Yuri’s mother, but Shoplifters presupposes that perhaps she should be. Ando’s performance is suffused with tenderness that surfaces over time, peeking from behind her sideways smirk and rough edges. This isn’t a woman who loves easily, but those she does love, she loves with every ounce of her soul.
The obvious care the Shibatas, or whoever they are, have for one another forestalls or at least deflects a certain building dread: Even in squalor, there’sa certain joy present in their situation. It’s not magic, per se—there’s nothing magical about poverty—but comfort, a sense of safety in numbers. These are people in dire need of means to survive. Necessity makes strange bedfellows. Shoplifters’s patchwork isn’t glamorous. The Shibata clan keeps their ship afloat by forsaking luxuries and hucking deadwood over the rail. But for a few stolen fishing rods, they’re content with what they have, and Kore-eda asks us if that’s such a crime in a world both literally and figuratively cold to the plight of the unfortunate.
He doesn’t sugarcoat the truth of the Shibatas. He aware of the legal ramifications of plucking a kid from her home in the dead of night, even with domestic abuse in the picture. Shoplifters tempts the audience with cozier illusions of life as a Shibata: Kore-eda shoots as if we’re in their apartment with them, cramped in a corner, thirsting for privacy, desperate for shampoo, and yet enjoying a certain snug intimacy regardless of the grunge and grime. Hardship is the price paid to be spared outsiders’ scrutiny.
And when outsiders intervene in their daily lives, Shoplifters becomes another kind of film entirely, forcing the viewer to reevaluate the previous events. That process is painful, but Kore-eda is a gentle filmmaker: He maintains the spirit of grace and empathy that gives the film its shape. Much like a deck of cards, Shoplifters is a story built upon other stories, and stories, much like the Shibata family, often threaten to fall in on themselves. But Shoplifters is held up by the strength of its ensemble and Kore-eda’s gifts as a storyteller, which gain with every movie he makes—even in the same year.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jo, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki
Release Date: November 23, 2018 (limited); November 30, 2018 (wide)
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.