It’s very easy to take family for granted. We’re born with them, they’re always around, and often our familiarity with them can cause us to assume they will always be there for us, no matter what, regardless of our behaviour. The more complicated the world becomes - socially, economically and politically - the more broad the term "family" becomes. Sometimes, it’s the family we create for ourselves from those around us that can mean more, help define us and give us support and love. This idea forms the basis of acclaimed director Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or-winning ‘Shoplifters’, a gentle and heartwarming film about making a family in the most unusual of circumstances.
Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura Andô) both work low-pay jobs that hardly cover their expenses. They get by, not just by living with grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), along with sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and living off her pension, but by supplementing their income by shoplifting, a skill they’ve taught their son Shota (Jyo Kairi). When Osamu and Shota discover a lost little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), clearly from an abusive home, they decide to take her in and adopt her into the family, regardless of whether anyone is looking for her, and provide her with love and a home she deserves.
Usually we associate Palme d’Or winners with weighty subjects and deathly-serious tones, so it’s a surprise just how generous, open and often joyous a film ‘Shoplifters’ is. Koreeda’s technical craft is subtle and never draws attention to itself, but this doesn’t make him any less a wondrous storyteller. ‘Shoplifters’ is mostly a series of character portraits, and each member of the Shibata family is beautifully constructed and drawn. We’re introduced to them without any background or context, but you instantly grasp the dynamic in the family, and even though they’re all engaged in some sort of illegal activity, their generosity and care with each other is instantly relatable. In many ways, the real joy of ‘Shoplifters’ is that unexpected wit and generosity, and you fall in love very quickly with the family, especially in how they so very openly welcome Yuri into the family. That said, Koreeda weaves a careful thread of morality through his narrative, especially through the eyes of Shota, who has always taken the shoplifting for granted, thanks to Osamu’s eloquent justifications, but when Yuri appears, he sees their actions through different eyes, and begins to question the dynamic under which the family operates.
Another wonderful achievement of the film is that Koreeda never positions us as the audience as observers of poverty or misfortune. So many films looking at impoverished family end up coming across as "poverty porn", as if we in our middle-class privilege are looking at animals in a zoo, made to feel bad for them and thus absolve our middle-class guilt. Koreeda doesn’t want us to feel sorry for the Shibatas though. They’re a happy family, seemingly at peace with their situation, and the film never asks for your pity. It also doesn’t hide the fact that it’s a situation of their own making - they are who they are, doing the wrong thing on many levels (from pension fraud to essentially kidnapping), but where other films would have found the weight and drama of it, ‘Shoplifters’ mixes this with humour and light, helped considerably by Ryûto Kondô’s cinematography, which gives the slums of Tokyo a kind of beautiful dignity, and a gentle, bouncing score from Haruomi Hosono.
That said, the misbehaviours of the Shibata family inevitably catch up with them, and this is where ‘Shoplifters’ takes an unexpected, but quietly well-earned, narrative turn. Koreeda leaves breadcrumbs through the film to suggest that this family unit isn’t entirely what it seems, and this path leads to revelations that cause both Aki and Shota to question so much about who their family really is. In many ways, this strengthens Koreeda’s investigation into the meaning of family and the ways in which our constructed family can offer us something our biological one can’t, simply in the act of choosing those whom make this family. It’s quietly heartbreaking but still manages to find a joyful sadness in the shattering of the family unit, and the sudden narrative turn is one of those rare instances where it comes as a surprise and feels entirely earned all at once.
In many ways, the real joy of ‘Shoplifters’ is that unexpected wit and generosity, and you fall in love very quickly with the family.
So much of the magic of ‘Shoplifters’ comes from the performances and this remarkable little ensemble, each member as integral as the other. Lily Franky has a playful, almost juvenile quality as Osamu, a completely inadequate patriarch of the family, and this works beautifully with the far more determined performances from Andô, Kiki and Matsuoka. Sakura Andô in particular just exudes warmth and affection, even in the darker moments, and she has a smile and a laugh that burst off the screen. Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki are also remarkable as the two younger members of the clan, tackling complex thematic material with intelligence beyond their years, but maintaining a spirited and youthful energy.
‘Shoplifters’ is such a disarming film - you think you’re watching something minor and sleight, but its heart and generosity stay with you long after the credits roll. It presents a slice of Japanese life with no cinematic bells and whistles, but with the fourth wall taken down, welcoming you in to sit and chat and share with this unconventional family unit. Considering the terrible state of the world, with families and loved ones pulled apart by war or social collapse or political inhumanity, it’s no wonder this film walked away with the top film award in the world. It’s a gorgeous reminder that the most beautiful aspects of human life and relationships can be found in the smallest places, and it’s the string that connects us from heart-to-heart that makes each day worth living.