A main slate selection at the New York Film Festival, “Shoplifters” is extraordinary and original. Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda wrote and directed the film, and he clearly meant it to both entertain, and to disturb. The film was the surprise winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
It establishes a tone of upbeat family affection from the very beginning, and maintains it for well over the first hour of a two hour film. It opens with Osamu, played by Lily Franky, a man in his late forties wearing worn street clothes, and Shota, played by Kairi Jo, a boy about ten years old, walking into a supermarket together. It is huge, very crowded and packed with food products and other items. Osamu silently signals something to Shota, with a hand gesture, which is clearly a cue for the boy to secretly stuff itms into his backpack. As they leave the store, smiling, we sense they are well experienced at shoplifting; that it’s become a comfortable and rewarding pastime.
Returning home, we see the other family members greet them warmly, and are excited about the day’s loot. Granny, played by Kirin Kiki, is spry and toothless, and seems to dominate the others in her low-key way, although the others don’t seem to mind. They are Osamu’s wife, Noboyu, played by Sakura Ando, an attractive woman of about his age, and her teenage daughter from a different father, Aki, a real beauty. But the group will soon have a new member. Osamu has spotted a stunning five-year old girl sitting unsupervised in a neighboring building. Curious, he and Noboyu seek her out, but when they overhear her parents arguing, in effect saying the girl is just a hateful burden to them, they take her home with them. Her name is Juri, and she soon grows to accept the loving attention she receives from these strangers. She becomes especially attached to Shota, who teaches her the rudiments of shoplifting.
The group lives hand-to-mouth in a tiny, cluttered hovel, but they always seem spirited and supportive of each other. Their extreme poverty is not softened, but we sympathize, and are amazed, at how little effect it seems to have on their optimistic outlook. Granny’s pension from her late husband is the main source of income, but Aki contributes from a job in a massage parlor that is really an oral sex den. Osamu and Noboyu also have jobs, but Osamu is injured, and placed on unpaid leave, and Noboyu is terminated by the boss to save money. Granny also gets subsidy from Aki’s father, who is comfortably middle-class and, apparently, unaware of Aki’s job in the massage parlor.
For most of the first part, the only major discordant note is Shota’s strange refusal to call Osamu his father. Still, Kore-eda maintains a fairly upbeat tone while we learn about this “extended” family, even after we see the virtual kidnapping of Juri. Somehow, Osamu’s and Noboyu’s shock on hearing of her parents’ hatred for her seems only an act of misguided empathy, but certainly not a crime.
But the story, and the generally comic tone, suddenly turn much darker. A visit to the seashore – which is handled with Kore-eda’s typical gentle humor – marks the turning point. From the morning of the day after, all of the characters we have come to care about are confronted with the harsh truths they have tried to hide from themselves and, of course, from the viewer.
The unfolding of these truths is not a pleasant thing to watch. But, quite remarkably, this refocusing of the film only enriches it. We have come to accept these characters as real people. While the main reason is the uniformly excellent performances – led by Lily Franky, in a heartbreaking performance as Osamu – it is also due to Kore-eda’s storytelling skill.
Their natural generosity and warmth is convincingly dramatized in every scene; not simply dropped into pieces of dialogue. As a result, when we learn of their shocking past behavior, we only feel pity for them. The film reaches an emotional climax in the penultimate scene, with Osamu frantically running after the bus taking Shota away from him, while the boy, sitting by the window, is paralyzed by confusion.