Original Name: Manbiki Kazoku
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Runtime: 121 minutes
IMDB Link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8075192/
Leave it to Kore-eda to deliver another touching and heartbreaking tale about family bond and what family is ready made of. Throughout his career, Kore-eda has explored the family dynamic in many different angles, from heavy heart-wrenching drama in Nobody Knows, to more formal and mature ones like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son to unassuming slice-of-life of My Little Sister. You can see many elements from those films in Shoplifters (an original screenplay written by him), but what make this one stick out is the way he injects just the right doses between them, making this a roller coaster of emotions from laughter to achingly sad to tender moments without losing its balance. Inspired by local news reports of how people in the same family cheat, abuse one another, he makes this story with a simple premise: a poor family meets 4-year-old kid who stays alone in cold night in the balcony and decides to take her home and then raise her themselves. Oh did I mention these family members shoplift stuffs for their everyday use? Did I mention that despite appearing like a normal family, none of them are blood-related? Or even know each other past very well, or at all?
That marks the first concept that Shoplifters wants to focus on: explore the dynamic in this “makeshift family” (it’s a very loose term I’m using here). We see how this 4-year-old girl Rin (Sasaki Miyu, my subtitle says Lin but we all know better), whose scars and bruises visibly seen all over her body, slowly gets accustomed to this new home, and how the Shibata members, hesitate at first, start to welcome her with all their hearts. It helps that they’re all likeable bunch, We have the grandma (Kiki Kilin, she’s amazing, as always) as the whole family literally survive on her monthly pension. We have the happy-go-lucky father Osamu (Franky Lily), a mother Nobuyo (Ando Sakura, lead in 100 Yen Love), an older teenager sister Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), and our boy Shota (Jyo Kairi) who serves as the main MAIN protagonist. As the young girl starts to open up (and boy does she fits into this house), we get to know more about the other members. Here comes the tricky part, how would Kore-eda strengthen the chemistry of this cast, one of the most important seed in this story?
The trick here is that not only he allows the other members spend time with this girl and treat her dearly, he explores the dynamic from every single pair of this household. I might make it sound calculated but in truth, each pair sparks different shade of chemistry. Some of them more intimate than the others, but these characters feel nature to each other and very much enjoy each other’s company. Chief among them is the relationship between Shota and Osamu. The man teaches the kid how to steal (simply because it’s the only thing he knows), and wants him to say him “Dad”, which the boy refuses. At other scene, we have Aki, working as a stripper in a one-way mirror peep show, talks joyously to her customer about Rin’s story, even though she has her real sister whom she enstranges. Through each scene we see a darker, sadder side of these characters and we feel like we know a little bit better about them now. It comes as no surprise that their happiest moments are when the six of them enjoy doing things together, worry sick about little things, listening (instead of watching because they can’t see) the fireworks and jumping around the sea waves. You could go so far to say that they willing to sacrifice themselves to the others.
The second theme, as the title suggests, is a exploration at class-status. Not that Shoplifters intends to portrays a realistic look at poverty and people who can barely make their end meet, nor does it tries to raise the difference between the upper class and the poor. Not at all. Well, there’s a few notches now and then, but its intention is more related to family issues. The film’s message is that even this poor family that no one really is related by blood can find love and comfort in each other through the worst living conditions, as opposed to standard, upper class where each member alienating themselves from each other with endless cycle of everyday’s duties. These building ups are important, in hindsight, because afterwards Shoplifters make a sharp turn that very much put these bonds into test, breaking apart and turn everything upside down.
And boy, what a devastating and hard-hitting turn this latter half turns out to be. It eventually comes down to the hard core truth, the question that will provide no easy way out: what are they to each other at the end of the day? Nobuyo keeps asserting that “while people can’t choose their own family, if they have that ability, the bond will be much stronger”. But is that true? In another sequence, Osamu says that what they share is in the heart, and not “down there”. This will be put into test much later on. The film consistently challenges these characters into betraying their own belief, breaking their own trust so that whatever remained is the core truth. The latter half cuts deeper and deeper as one details unfold upon another, and in the string of dozen emotional sequences, one stands out: a scene where Nobuyo nearly speechless, bare her feeling as she struggles to come up with an answer. Shoplifters’s sharp observation is in full displays. I don’t mind to see a second chapter out of this story where the family reconciles, or I won’t lie that I already imagine about the story of these three siblings grabbing on ten, twelve years from now. At the same time, Shoplifters feels wholly satisfied. That speaks to the very strength of what could be Kore-eda’s most accessible work, a balance piece of work that makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you think hard, and these characters stay with you afterward.