We first meet Osamu Shibata (Franky Lily) and the young Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a supermarket, employing their seemingly foolproof scheme for nicking free food. Osamu goes around putting items in a basket, while Shota wanders around like any bored child would. Osamu then stands in the way of the security guard while Shota drops food in his bag. Once that task is completed, Osamu leaves the basket behind and they waltz off with their free dinner.
Accompanied by incidental jazz music, this scene is paced and directed like the start of a traditional comedy, but intentionally misdirects the audience into expecting something far different from the eventual finished product. Shoplifters is about so much more than just its title, eventually becoming a deeply heartfelt drama about the bonds of family, the meaning of true love, and the humiliation of living in relative poverty. Simply put, this is great cinema.
What is the definition of a family? Is it a choice, or something that happens naturally? These are the questions the Shibatas ask in Shoplifters, as they find a young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who is stranded in the street, and thus take her into their home. Osamu wants to take her back — because it looks an awful lot like kidnapping — so they walk her back to her parents house. But when he overhears her folks arguing — with the mother saying that she never wanted their daughter in the first place — he decides to adopt Yuri for himself.
Yuri is the addition to a unique and rambunctious family, all crammed into grandmother Hatsue’s (Kirin Kiki) tiny apartment; they make the Yamadas look like the Kennedys. This group does much more than mere shoplifting to get by, however. Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), has a precarious job working in a dry cleaners, and some days has to come in at noon because they are sharing the higher wages among more staff. Meanwhile, her sister (Mayu Matsuoka) is in the sex industry, putting on shows for men behind glass windows in a style reminiscent of Paris, Texas. As for Osamu, he hurts his leg while working, and is entitled to no compensation. This creates a broader critique about workers’ rights and the role of women in Japan in addition to providing a necessary context to the themes of the movie. Once we understand the plight of these people, the entanglement they come under only hits that much harder.
Ultimately, Shoplifters poses a classical moral dilemma: who is entitled to be a parent? Those who love the child, or those who made her? And these parents simply adore little Yuri. When Nobuyo buys Yuri clothes, Yuri asks if she will hit her afterwards like her mother did. Nobuyo tells her that if a mother truly loves her child, then she will never hit her, only hug her. Andô acts the hell out of this scene, holding onto the little child for dear life. We want these de-facto parents to succeed because we can tell that they truly care about the girl. But outside forces are at work, eventually resulting in a devastating conclusion. While the average viewer might be able to vaguely figure out what will happen in the end, it’s how the movie gets there that is truly heartbreaking.
Shoplifters is reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu in the way its characters respond to sad moments in graceful ways. This use of understatement actually works to increase the film’s emotional power. Hirokazu Kore-eda puts his characters first, creating delicate naturalist scenes of remarkable tenderness. Yet even when it seems like a piece of fly-on-the-wall realism, the film is slowing laying down the groundwork for its final gut-wrenching scenes. This is masterful screenwriting, creating wonderful images such as a family day at the beach before later using them as major plot points. Therefore, when the final twists land, they land right in the jugular.
All told, Shoplifters is not only masterfully made, but the kind of instantly memorable tale that is worthy of being compared to the best of Japanese cinema. Infinitely tender without lapsing into sentimentality, Shoplifters achieves a remarkable balance of both emotional and narrative construction. Anyone who doesn’t cry by the end of this film is a monster.