Direction: Hirokazu Koreeda
The imposing filmography of Japanese Hirokazu Koreeda just became richer with the addition of Shoplifters, an intelligent, fully formed piece of cinema conceived with as much filmic art as emotional insight. The family topic is recurrent in Koreeda’s explorations, with dramas such as Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015), and Like Father Like Son (2013) being very much recommended. It was precisely the latter film that inspired the director to write Shoplifters, based on the question ‘what makes a family?’
Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, the story follows a quirky family struggling with poverty during the peak of the Japanese recession. The father, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), hates to work in the freezing cold and spends time with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi), instructing him safe techniques to shoplift goods in small grocery stores. Shota is not his real son; he was taken from a car at a very young age. Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), a laundry employee, say they saved him from negligent parents. The family lives under the roof of a goodhearted elder woman, Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), who, additionally, helps them financially via her late husband’s pension. Rounding out the group of misfits is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a club hostess who is very close to Hatsue.
The limiting economical factor doesn't refrain Osuamu and Nobuyo from ‘adopting’ Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little neighbor girl psychologically traumatized by abusive parents. Without notice, their happiness is suddenly at risk due to several agents. The girl’s disappearance is somehow reported on the TV; Hatsue dies suddenly right after the couple becomes jobless; and Shota starts to inquire in his head about what’s wrong and what’s right.
Stressing family bonds, Koreeda expands his realistic vision, procuring a dichotomy that is equally complex and questionable. Genuine moments of rapture and love found within the improvised family oppose to the stressful atmosphere the kids are subjected in their real parents’ households. In the case of Shota, the uncertainty about his real past and family persist after the credits roll.
Beautifully shot and brimming with precious humane details, the film is always gentle in tone. Nothing surprising here since Koreeda is a creative storyteller that doesn’t need to make a fuss to clearly bring his point of view. The strong social consciousness elevates a story that kind of disturbs in its final phase by exposing some shocking dark secrets. This near masterpiece made me think for long periods of time, meaning that its message and purpose were conveyed with a glorious sense of accomplishment.