Family is relative. Last year in film, we saw families picnicking on the beach or quietly eating dinner while aliens prowled outside, and others still using their combined acrobatic skills and love of steam trains to stop Hugh Grant from stealing a priceless pop-up book of London. Shoplifters, Japan’s hat in the Best Foreign Language Film ring, envisions family as a cluster of misfits who gravitate toward one another, desperate people trying to get by however they can.
Despite what the title suggests, most of the family works. Patriarch Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) works construction, while his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) launders clothes and their sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) performs at a hostess’ club. The sentinel of the home, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), buoys the family with her pension checks. But none of this is enough.
Osamu and his son, Shota (Kairi J?), resort to shoplifting noodles, chips, and shampoo — everything they need to live semi-comfortably in their crowded bungalow. Crafted in the wake of Japan’s Lost 20 Years, Shoplifters reacts to turn-of-the-century Japan’s widespread poverty, but the film’s joy and heart radiate from its Dickensian execution. Hirokazu Kore-eda, who triple-threats as director, writer and editor here, makes Osamu into a Fagin-esque figure with twice the charm and none of the implied pederasty. Shota’s unwilling Artful Dodger, and the 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), he discovers in the frigid night air becomes their Oliver Twist.
Kore-eda steers Shoplifters with the grace and complexity of a master (the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). His precise direction makes the sublime introduction — Osamu and Shota stealing from a grocery store — nothing short of magical. Part of that magic is the control the camera has as it steadily tracks their petty heist. Osamu and Shota communicate in cryptic hand gestures and soft stares, having honed the act of shoplifting into a dance.
For her complicated role, the 7-year-old Sasaki plays Yuri with equal parts timidity and knowingness. Yuri’s parents abuse her, and the actress’ quiet, uncertain stare is all the evidence we need to understand the weight the abuse has had on her. Yuri bonds with Nobuyo — whom she affectionately calls “Mother” — over burn marks on their forearms inflicted with hot irons. The family of Shoplifters comprises many different types of victims, but under the roof of that small bungalow, where Kore-eda frames the family so simply, like a passive observer, it feels like nothing can touch them, like they’re cordoned off from the harshness of the world.
Sasaki threatens to eclipse the other performers. Franky, plays Osamu with mischievous glee, a perfect counterpoint to the soft-spoken Hatsue. Kiki, who died last September, was a veteran actress, and she naturally excels in her folksy, sly turn in Shoplifters. Every movement, from her slow shuffle across the floor to the deliberate way she chews her food, fleshes out Hatsue’s character.
The great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu loved his tatami shots, where the camera is in line with the reed tatami mats on the house floors. Kore-eda’s work in Shoplifters reminds one of Ozu’s poetry, the way he shoots characters through doors, creating portraits within the camera’s eye.
Kore-eda’s delicate character ballet is humanitarian cinema: heartbreaking, funny and mundane. It harkens back to a simpler style of film, when relationships could power a narrative better than any globe-trotting intrigue, murder plot, superhero battle or gunfight. Shoplifters is harmony captured on film, real life transposed to 35mm. In Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a woman ponders how her children will grow old and drift away from her, and she asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” It is, Shoplifters says — true happiness never lasts, after all — but the film makes the case that there’s beauty, humor and mischief to be found in all that disappointment.