Depicting a Japanese family that survives by running petty scams, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s modern day Oliver Twist story offers “poverty porn” of a most unconventional sort. On the one hand, the protagonists’ rough-and-ready lifestyle demonstrate that people can find comfort even in the worst economic conditions. On the other hand, the devastating conclusion exposes how the existing state system fails its neediest individuals. This marks a return to the socially-conscious mode of Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows,” but also continues his ongoing examination of what constitutes a family, and whether it can still provide cohesion in Japan’s rapidly devolving society. At once charming and heart-wrenching, this exquisitely performed film will steal the hearts of both art-house and mainstream audiences.
On a cold winter’s day, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) brings pint-sized Shota (Jyo Kairi) along for their usual shoplifting rounds, coming upon a shivering young girl (Miyu Sasaki, cute as a button) on their way home. Worried that she might freeze to death alone, Osamu brings her home, where his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando, “100 Yen Love”) huffs about having an extra mouth to feed — though she can’t bring herself to send the kid home after seeing the scars and bruises all over her body. And so, they allow the girl to stay, rechristening her Rin.
The tragicomic squalor of the Shibatas’ crumbling Japanese-style bungalow must be seen to be believed: Their hovel may look like a slackers’ den, but it turns out that husband and wife both have full-time, back-breaking jobs — one on a construction site, the other in an industrial laundry. Even their college-age daughter Aki (current It-girl Mayu Matsuoka, “Tremble All You Want”) makes a living of sorts, by performing for strangers in a “Paris, Texas”-style strip booth. But their most substantial income derives from the old crone they call “grandma” (Kirin Kiki), who is pocketing her late ex-husband’s pension, and freeloading off his son from a second marriage.
The raggedy Rin fits right into such a makeshift household, which manages to have something of a feast every day, made from pilfered groceries and instant noodles. Without dwelling on the morality of how Rin was adopted (her birth parents never bother to file a police report), the film’s portrayal of their life together grows more and more idyllic. As the seasons change and the two youngest children grow closer, the tykes catch cicadas and go to the beach, where granny mumbles “thank you” as she watches them frolic by the sea.
However, from the opening scene in which the protagonists demonstrate their five-finger discount at the supermarket, to Rin’s early training in the art of shoplifting, audiences are made aware that their charmed life won’t last forever. In fact, Shota is already having qualms both practical and moral, and when one glitch happens, all the skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Although the clues have been there all along, not all viewers will be prepared for how dark the story turns. Yet, thanks to characterizations that brim with humanity, none of this changes one’s fondness or sympathy for the protagonists. In fact, one cares more about them.
Kore-eda’s sharp critique of labor conditions (not unique to Japan) are epitomized by a new initiative called “workshare”: Basically, workers are asked to alternate on half-day shifts so they’re paid less. The result is, in Osamu’s words, “everyone gets a bit poorer by the day.” As Osamu quibbles, stealing becomes the family’s subversive form of “workshare.” As the story progresses, theft doesn’t just involve taking money, it’s a defining act of existence in an emotionally deprived world — Aki uses her sister’s name as her professional alias; Granny’s marriage and old-age security have been snatched from her by a younger mistress; there are even hints of child kidnapping.
But there is also much giving in this ersatz family: Granny always shares her food as treats, and Nobuyo gives Rin a swimsuit which she loves so much she takes her baths in it. And most moving of all, each is willing to make a sacrifice for the other without hesitation. As Kore-eda indicated in an interview, the inspiration for this film came from news reports of how relatives cheat, abuse, and sometimes even murder one another, prompting him to wonder if families in Japan (where resorting to stealing is relatively uncommon, and particularly shameful) are now bound by crimes rather than love.
Critics will recall the film’s similarity to “Nobody Knows” in its description of the appalling destitution that the public willfully overlooks. Again, children are the most vulnerable victims, and it’s heartbreaking to see how they mature beyond their years to cope. In fact, the theme is more of a piece with the more recent “Like Father, Like Son,” which also stars Franky as a rough-around-the-edges working class father who believes that love rather than expensive grooming is the way to raise children. In a society where children are predominantly raised by wives while husbands slave away at work making money to support the household, Kore-eda questions what makes one a parent: Is it strictly biological, or does one earn the title through love? “Shoplifters” gives an imperfect answer that nonetheless offers a glimmer of hope.
The film reunites some of Kore-eda’s favorite cast, including Kiki (“Still Walking,” “After the Storm”) and Franky, who both give their roles a rumpled, lived-in feel. Kiki is delightfully devilish as the elderly hustler with a razor-sharp sense of everyone’s motives. Working for the first time with the director, gifted actress Ando delivers one of the most sublime performances of her career so far. Sporting the veneer of a wild, aggressive alley cat, she can also reveal melting tenderness toward Rin, and a scene when she tries to hide her tears is an unforgettable evocation of a hard shell breaking. Acclaimed for his direction of children, Kore-eda again coaxes the most sensitive, unaffected performances from Kairi and Sasaki.
Craft contributions are so refined that the technical flair of the crew is nearly imperceptible. Collaborating with Kore-eda for the first time, lenser Ryuoto Kondo (renowned for his work with Daihachi Yoshida and Nobuhiro Yamashita) captures nature in steep contrasts of winter and summer that reinforces the timelessness of the protagonists’ traditional home, nestled against modern, impersonal high-rises. Again claiming editing duties for himself, the writer-director maintains a brisker, breezier pace than his last few works.