We’re raised to believe that one of the few things we can’t choose in life is our families. But challenging that notion lies at the heart of Shoplifters, the latest by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda and winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Portraying a rough part of Tokyo far from the shimmery, futuristic landscapes that so often represent the city on screen, Kore-eda focuses on a the Shibatas, a destitute family that scrimps and grifts to stay alive and keep their ramshackle two-room home, including many acts of stealing from grocery stores to feed themselves.
Or, are they a family at all? The parents, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), are married, but their children came into the picture in atypical ways. An older daughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), has drifted in, earning her keep by performing in peep shows. There’s also a young son, Shota (Kairi Jyo), an orphan the couple found abandoned in a car, and a grandmother (Kirin Kiki) running scams of her own.
And despite an apparent lack of blood relations, this is a family. Kore-eda opens on Osamu and Shota plying their titular trade, with the boy scanning shelves with his big, puddle-like eyes for things to nip while his would-be dad plays lookout. It’s not so much a criminal scheme as it is a code: as long as the stores don’t go bankrupt, Osamu tells his cohabitants, their stealing is a victimless crime.
The family grows one larger when Osamu and Shota, returning from one of their supply runs, happen upon a five-year-old girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who’s cold, alone, and an apparent victim of abuse. Again, the constructed family’s ethos kicks in: is it kidnapping to take in a child who appears to have been abandoned without notifying the authorities?
The answer, of course, is yes, even though this odd arrangement is the first whiff of love Yuri encounters. Instantly, she gets the bonds of older siblings and a doting grandparent. Despite their teaching so many wrong lessons, their affection is genuine.
Kore-eda, who’s explored the experiences of abandoned children before in 2004’s Nobody Knows, treats this makeshift family gently. Their lives, though constructed on a bed of convenient lies and short cons, have an almost documentary-like naturalism, and Kore-eda treats them sympathetically without ever getting maudlin. There are moments of subtle humor, deep sensuality, and utter heartbreak, and though the Shibatas are so clearly in the wrong, it’s impossible to leave their corner.