Humanistic Tale of a Petty Criminal Family

in 30th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Elaine Guerini

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku) reconfirms Hirokazu Kore-eda as a director with the sensibility for delving into the complexities of family relationships in contemporary Japan. Even when a family is not necessarily related by blood, but by shared miserable circumstances, which is the case here. A master of storytelling, he can afford to let the characters say more with looks and silences than words. Or, as he also does, to let the story breathe slowly, without rushing to get to the point. Probably because he knows it will not reduce the emotional impact in the end. Quite the opposite.

This time the director known for Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, 2013), Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, 2015), and After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku, 2016), among other family dramas, takes his humanistic look at marginalized people, something we see less and less in Japanese cinema today. Inspired by Shohei Imamura (1926-2006), who also followed the life on the lower rungs of society, in Shoplifters Kore-eda depicts a family of thieves, where even the children are taught to steal from grocery stores. Along with Nadine Labaki’s 2019 film Capernaum, these are the best children’s performances of last year for their ludic realism.

Osamu (Lily Franky) is the patriarch of the Shibata family, living on the outskirts of Tokyo. A casual worker on construction sites, he makes more money by selling what he steals in the streets with his son, Shota (Kairi Jyo). His wife, Noboyu (Sakura Ando), works in a laundry facility, where she usually goes through the pockets of customers’ clothes,  looking for something of value—also with the intention of selling whatever she finds.

The family’s grandmother, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), receives a small pension from her late husband, complementing this amount with some blackmail against the sons of her husband’s second marriage. A young lady, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), completes the Shibata clan, contributing to the family expenses by working in a Tokyo’s peep show. 

Kore-eda refuses to judge his characters, even though the viewer may feel compelled to do so sometimes. It is a warm and heartfelt portrayal of simple people who care about each other, besides counting on one another for survival. The size of their hearts becomes even more evident when the patriarch brings home a five-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who is found alone, cold and hungry at night. The marks on her body signal that she is abused by her parents, a reason good enough for the family to hide her. Especially when the news of her disappearance spreads, bringing the police to the case.

When the audience begins to surrender completely to the Shibatas, an unexpected turn of events will reveal that not everything is as it seems. But even if some links between the characters are false, the relationships they build and the emotions they have for one another are true. By deconstructing this unconventional family unit, Kore-eda questions with such grace the whole notion of family, asking what really constitutes one and what is needed to keep it together, regardless of blood ties.

In a short time, even the little girl learns to steal, following the family’s petty criminal traditions. There are many moments of tenderness involving the youngest one in the clan, no matter how inexcusable the Shibatas’ behavior is sometimes. The film’s strength lies exactly here. In the end, that household hides many secrets–some of them indefensible. But Kore-eda’s open-hearted approach somehow asks the audience to try to understand what, at first, seems unjustifiable. When the father is asked if he does not feel guilty about encouraging the children to steal, his answer reflects the disconcerting spirit which Shoplifters was conceived in. “I have nothing else to teach,” he says, embarrassed.

Elaine Guerini
Edited by Savina Petkova