Shoplifters: Redefining the concept of family

In an age when humanity has seemingly taken a back seat, Kore-eda’s gentle drama about a disjointed clan of outcasts is timely and relevant.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Hirokazu Kore-eda is often compared to the legendary Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, 1953), who is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential directors. Like his predecessor, Kore-eda has spent much of his career picking apart the concept of family and the forces revolving around the workings of this societal structure.

But, some of Kore-eda’s best works came about when he has strived to tell stories of the unseen and downtrodden of our society – films that have been brave enough to explore the inequity which rules the world today.

Hirokazu Kore-eda at Cannes. ©Wikimedia Commons

The most striking example is Nobody Knows (2004), the story of four children abandoned by their mother in an apartment in Tokyo, where they lived unmissed and undetected for months.

This pertinent line of enquiry by the Japanese auteur, lasting almost three decades, has motivated a staggering body of work that rightfully places him alongside the modern legends of world cinema – a journey culminating with this modern-day masterpiece, Shoplifters, and a maiden Palme d’Or for Kore-eda.

From the getgo, Shoplifters catapults us right into the thick of the action as we watch a young boy steal food from a supermarket while an elderly man, who seems to be his male guardian, plays the role of a lookout. We follow them home and we are introduced to what looks like any other Japanese family, living together under the roof of a cramped apartment in downtown Tokyo.

We learn that the man is named Osamu (Lily Frank) and that he works on construction sites, but makes a living from selling stuff he steals from supermarkets with his son Shota (Jyo Kairi).

His wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura) works in the hotel laundry industry and she too steals anything she finds in the pockets of the trousers and shirts that she rummages through every day.

Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who seems to be the wife’s younger sister, brings her share by taking part in a soft porn peep show in town. Hatsue (Kiki Kirin), the grandmother lives on her pension and regularly visits the children of her late husband’s second wife and guilt trips them into paying her money.

Over the course of the next two hours, we get to know these characters so deeply; we watch them at their jobs, spent time with them in the average domesticity of their cramped home, and join them in hesitantly welcoming yet another member to their family, a young girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki) they pick off the street.

Nothing is quite like it seems with the Shibatas, and we quickly realise that none of them are even actually related to each other. It is an arrangement of convenience that seems to be extremely functional until everything inevitably falls apart for this makeshift family surviving outside the law.

Kore-eda skillfully feeds us little crumbs throughout, suggesting greater secrets, and the final half-hour of the movie reveals all leaving us to ponder new-found truths about the Shibatas.

Shoplifters asks us the difficult questions. What does family mean? Does giving birth to someone automatically make you a mother? When you look at a criminal, do you also see the society which created them?

These are particularly relevant queries. Human connections no longer hold the reverence it once did within our society, today, even the very idea of ‘family’ seems to be heaving its last breath. Just look at this country, the traditional concept of a Japanese family no longer exists, as more and more elderly people are living alone, children no longer hold a close relationship with their grandparents – the Japanese nuclear family is undergoing a permanent change.

Humanity’s sole emphasis on individual freedom has seen us slowly but surely detach ourselves from that innate sense of responsibility we had towards each other. This is visible not just within families, it is the defining character of modern human society – racism and xenophobia are its dominant narratives for valid reason.

And, when a movie is capable of leading its audience to such powerful interrogation, it is credit to the characters that stay with you long after the movie is done. In the able hands of Kore-eda, this true ensemble cast gives us some of the most fully realised characters we’ll ever see on screen.

Lily Frank as the male lead is fantastic, and it is a perfect outing for veteran actress Kiki Kirin, her final screen performance before she died of cancer in September at the age of 75. But the standout performance has to be Ando Sakura who owns the last half-hour of the film with her sublime portrayal of a deeply conflicted woman.

With Shoplifters, the most important question that is put forward is whether we have the right to say that this group is not a family. Or to put it differently: Is our family more or better connected than the Shibatas?

Not many of us would lift our heads in pride to answer that.

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