A makeshift family pulls in a little girl they find on the street.
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Lily Franky and Sakuro Ando
Review by Jon Kissel
Making Lin a full-fledged member seems like the most natural thing in the world for this makeshift family, but it dooms them as well. There’s the obvious ticking clock of the inevitable day when she’ll be recognized as a missing child. It complicates things for the otherwise pliant Shota, who’s constructed enough rules about his crimes to excuse himself but inducting someone new only exacerbates his low level guilt. Bringing her into shoplifting starts up a long process that will fracture everything, spinning everyone away from each other with the only hope for reunion being between Osamu and Nobuyo in the distant future.
While the decision to take Lin in locks the family into dissolution, it’s not like they could have decided differently. Discounting the titular crime, which isn’t great but is far from the worst thing a person could do, the family are all natural caretakers, possibly borne out of their need to pool funds and share the workload to continue living as they do. Shoplifters has a lot going on in its head, but a potent theme are the innate talents of warmth and support. If love and affection are biological ratios of neurotransmitters (as everything is), some people are going to missing this enzyme or that receptor. Some are going to be incapable of charity towards their own progeny, and others are going to be able to take in adorable randos off the street with no ulterior motive.
Speaking of ratios, the characters of Shoplifters are coming to grips with interpersonal continuums of generosity and exploitation, and where the slider is falling between the two. For Aki, this is most apparent, as she’s in a nakedly exploitative business but still finds some level of generosity for a repeat customer who is desperate for affection. Shota has been well-cared for (with big asterisks) as he’s a self-sufficient and kind boy, but his existence with his family is resting upon the quotient of grief inflicted on his birth parents and is surprised to find the slider’s closer to exploitation than he thought when Osamu moves to abandon him in a hospital. Lin surely expected nothing but generosity from her parents as a baby, and got nothing but curling iron burns and fear of adults. Most of the family, including Nobuyo with her abusive husband and Hatsue with her cheating husband, have been burned by betrayal but haven’t given up on generosity. For these more experienced members, one can be kind and loving while also guilting an innocent family into handouts or illegally cashing pension checks. The good exists next to the bad, and one doesn’t wash out the other.
Koreeda shows the viewer the good, instructive, perfect moments first before pulling back the curtain on the multiple avenues of grift that are going on. Osamu gives Shota some manly guidance and doesn’t shame his nascent boners before he forces him into a smash-and-grab crime. Nobuyo comforts Lin and teaches her about hugs, perhaps for the first time in her life, before insisting that Hatsue’s corpse be buried in an unmarked grave. The inevitable breaking up of this unit was always going to hurt, and it does, but Koreeda chooses to endear first and muddle later, complicating what should happen to Shota and Lin until there aren’t right or wrong answers.
As a political film in the usual apolitical cinematic environment of Japan, Shoplifters synchs up with previous MMC movies like Take Shelter and Hell or High Water. Constricting economies and inequality make it difficult for people to support themselves, they are pushed into scams and crime, and in the specific case here, eventually become wards of the state anyways. It’s important that everyone’s working in the beginning of the film, to stress that all this is what it takes to sustain a life for these six people. They’re not bad, but here’s a trinket that just fell out of the laundry. I can report it and receive nothing, or I can take it and sell it or make a child happy, as Nobuyo does. These opportunities for small crimes that solve immediate problems get put in front of the poor, and there’s a finite supply of willpower. Accustomed to fire-breathing American films, especially in 2018 with entries like BlacKkKlansman or Sorry to Bother You, the politics of Shoplifters is practically a whisper, but this Les Miserables-esque drama still has something contemporary to say.
Koreeda uses actors repeatedly, so actors like Franky and Kiki were familiar to me. Franky has played a warm-hearted manchild before, and Kiki’s default is a lovable, overly honest grandma. The rest of the cast deserves to be folded into Koreeda’s ensemble because there are no weak links. Koreeda’s a genius with child actors of all ages, and the same applies here. There’s no mugging from Shota or Lin, only the expected amount of cutesiness generated by little kids alongside moments of credible joy. Matsuoka’s scene with the dude in the cam shop is a real standout, anchored by her deeply empathetic work. The film belongs to Ando, and Koreeda gives her multiple scenes that should’ve been good enough to get her Best Actress acclaim at the Oscars. They nominated Shoplifters for Foreign Film, so we know they saw it. Her tender work with Lin and her interrogation scenes are unimpeachable. I expected to be made emotional by Shoplifters, and it was Ando that did the work on more than one occasion.
Koreeda is one of the best working directors today, and he’s operating as a devotee of a Japanese tradition of small-scale domestic dramas that sit effortlessly next to operatic samurai epics. So much of American cinema can be traced to directors from Japan, and as these kinds of low-budget films disappear from US theaters, it’s heartening to see that they can still make good money in the rest of the world and perhaps inspire American filmmakers once again. Oranges rolling down a street can be made to look exactly as stunning as a ten million dollar CGI shot. A-