Shoplifters (2018) is about a struggling family of five, cramped into a small apartment in a lonesome corner of Tokyo. To survive, they employ minimum-wage jobs and round-out their earnings through shoplifting. Not without a heart of gold, the merry band of misfits rescue Yuri, a five-year-old girl abandoned in an apartment balcony. Yuri becomes the pivotal change that sets things into motion—as she adapts to her new family, secrets are slowly revealed – though, not all is understood up until the last frame.
Living together in one small room, six people strive to find happiness in poverty, longing, and despair. One begins to wonder: how long can they keep this up? Throughout the film, Kore-eda explores the politics of family ties and the meaning behind the words: mother, father, brother, and sister. The movie unfolds in a relatively slow pace and constantly focuses on the young boy, Shota. Shota has some difficulty welcoming Yuri into the family while he struggles to understand what it means to have a father, especially one who steals to provide.
The narrative in itself is enthralling and the screenplay, incredibly well-written. The cinematography is as playful as the story it carries, a consistent contrast between cramped spaces and panning landscapes. There seems to be an attention on the mundane conversations that occur between family members—as if pulling to the fore the mind-numbing realization that although there is much said between family, there is also an entire universe of the omitted.
The life of the Shibata family is consistently in decay. The first two acts of the film focus on revealing the personal lives of each member and their struggle to find happiness. A pivotal scene in the film is the family’s trip to the beach – Yuri’s first time ever. Here they laugh and find joy in each other’s company. For a few minutes on-screen, the Shibata family begins to feel lovable and approachable—no longer bitter and rough with constant exhaustion.
The third act approaches and everything changes. The grand matriarch passes and fearful of their living situation being exposed, they bury her body underneath the house. In what seems to be a ticking bomb, the rest of the family go on with their lives as if nothing happened, yet doom seems to be looming from a short distance. Soon thereafter, Shota is caught shoplifting and Yuri is taken into custody by the authorities.
The once idyllic family is shattered. The audience is let in on the secret that none of them were really related in the first place and that the young boy, Shota, was also once “rescued”, rather, kidnapped by who we thought were his parents. The Shibata family implodes and all of them are separated from each other.
Shoplifters ends on a heart-breaking note. Yuri is seen playing in the same balcony where the Shibata family took her from, hiding away from her abusive parents. She sings a children’s song while picking up her tiny toy blocks. The camera pans and she is shown looking outside, as if longing for her other family.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s skilful manipulation of the narrative and the impeccable performance by the actors bring together what one would hesitate to call a family film. It touches on the difficulty of human relationships and the stubbornness of intimacy. This intimacy is dissected through the eyes of a child, a young boy, a teenage girl, a couple, and a matriarch. Shoplifters reminds us of the fragility of connection and how it can outlast the most difficult of situations.
It is easy to see why the film won the coveted Palme d'Or. It matches its technical ambition with heartfelt storytelling. Never did the film feel needlessly didactic or melodramatic (an easy pitfall for family dramas). As much as the characters in the film left worlds unsaid, Kore-eda balances dialogue and action with stillness and soft desperation. The movie doesn’t dare to explain much and leaves all the stipulation for the audience—and just like in real life, we are left to fit the puzzle pieces together.