In many ways, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest feature has been a gift to the Japanese film industry. Yes, it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, but on a more sentimental level, it provided an opportunity to mourn for the late, great Kirin Kiki, who passed away three months after the film’s Japanese release. Admittedly, her character eventually receives a rather unconventional funeral, but she has a rather unconventional family in Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Technically, Osamu Shibata is the head of the household, but he is uncomfortable with the authority such a term would imply. On the other hand, he would very much like his “son” Shota to call him “dad,” but the pre-teen is not ready for that yet. Viewers quickly deduce Shota is a runaway who has been adopted by this unruly but protective family of small-time grifters. Osamu’s only proper legal tie could very well be to his wife Nobuyo, but they also live with their twentysomething “daughter,” Aki, and the clan’s matriarch, Hatsue, who is their primary source of economic support, from her fraudulent claims to her long-dead husband’s pension and periodic guilt money extracted from the son born to his second wife. Shoplifting is also an important supplement for them.
The Shibatas are petty crooks, but they are also working poor. Both Osamu and Nobuyo toil long hours at menial jobs. Yet, they are still a fun and loving family unit. Frankly, when Yuri, an abused and neglected six-year-old is also adopted into the family, it is the best thing that could happen to her. Her thuggish parents are also happy to be rid of her, until they suddenly find themselves accused of her presumed murder.
Kiki is terrific and Lily Franky was truly born to play a sad hound dog like Osamu, but it is the heartrending and utterly unaffected portrayal of young Miyu Sasaki as Yuri (renamed Rin) who will leave you emotionally ruined. Through her eyes, Kore-eda definitely asks what exactly it means to be a family—and clearly suggests society’s more legalistic definition is sorely inadequate. Shoplifters is also a prime example of his ability to elicit subtle yet revealing performances from his cast. Sakura Ando (probably still best known for 100 Yen Love), whose work as tough-talking, warm-hearted Nobuyo sneaks up on viewers and then really lowers the boom.
Kore-eda has maintained the preeminence of heartfelt Japanese family dramas, very much in the tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. This time around, he makes a conscious decision to incorporate more social commentary, with respects to issues of poverty and the somewhat disproportionate approbation the crimes of the Shibata family-gang faces versus that of Yuri’s mother. It is clear what Cannes and subsequent critics have responded to, but Kore-eda is such a consistently sensitive and accomplished artist, it seems almost unfair that this film should be anointed for rather arbitrary, non-cinematic reasons, especially since his previous three films, The Third Murder, After the Storm, and Our Little Sister were less reminiscent of his prior work and personally resonated for us considerably more. However, you can only have these debates over a filmmaker with filmography of such uniform quality.