In a ramshackle house in a Tokyo suburb, there lives an impoverished family who steal to survive. The bulk of their finances comes from the pension of grandma Hatsue’s (Kirin Kiki) dead ex-husband, a pittance of ¥60,000 ($527.69) a month—plus whatever she can guilt from the adult children of the lover he abandoned her for so many years ago. The father Osamu (Lily Franky) does day labor construction work, the mother Noboyu (Sakura Andô) slaves in a sweatshop, and their teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) does sex work in a peep show. But it’s still not enough. So every night Osamu takes their young son Shota (Kairi Jyo) shoplifting. “The things in stores don’t have owners yet,” he reassures the boy, “it’s fine as long as the stores don’t go bankrupt.” So they pilfer a bottle of shampoo here, a container of instant noodles there, and every once in a while, maybe a piece of candy.
They happily live their lives of petty thievery until one night Osamu and Shota bring home more than just a bag of groceries: a shivering, starving six-year-old-girl. Noboyu is initially dismissive of the child—feed her then send her back to her parents, she insists. But then she gets a good look at the burn marks on the girl’s arms, the cuts, the scars, the bruises that prove she wasn’t abandoned or got lost, but ran away. They rename her Juri and from that moment on she becomes part of their odd little clan, even after news reports with her face start popping up on TV. But they hardly seem to mind—very few of the people in the family are who they say they are with secrets lurking behind all of them, dastardly, terrible ones they’ve buried—both figuratively and literally—some time ago. For now they live and love in a self-created, self-sustained ignorance of reality. Of course this can never last, but hopefully it may sustain itself just a little bit longer because when you live primarily through five-finger discounts, tomorrow doesn’t matter.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is one of the Japanese master’s greatest films in some time, a return to the introspective family dramas that made him a mainstay of the international festival circuit in the early 2000s. The film surprised many when it picked up the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, beating out presumed front-runner Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s lugubrious South Korean thriller. After the initial scenes where Juri is discovered, Kore-eda weaves a loose series of naturalistic, interconnected vignettes as the family struggles to adjust to their new member. Their finances are tightened even more after Osamu is injured on site and put on unpaid medical leave for a month and Noboyu is blackmailed out of her job by a coworker when their boss announces plans to downsize and cruelly leaves it up to the two of them to decide who gets fired. An emotionally compromised Aki breaks one of the cardinal rules of sex work by allowing herself to become emotionally attached to one of her repeat clients, a young twenty-something with a debilitating stutter who goes by the code name Mr. Four. Osamu struggles to be a father to Shota, Shota a brother to Juri, and Juri a daughter to this strange clan of outsiders she’s stumbled upon.
In true Kore-eda fashion the film is quietly devastating, slowly accumulating an avalanche of emotions that climaxes in a beautiful sequence where the whole family plays together at the beach, a sight so perfect and beautiful it leads to Hatsue murmuring a silent “thank you” to the cosmos for the brief moment of joy. Unfortunately this scene happens near the mid point of the film, and everything afterwards is a mudslide of misfortune as one by one the family breaks apart. Identities and back-stories are revealed and police are summoned, both for the children and for the certain somethings buried under their floorboards. Worse than all of this are the realizations faced by the children: Shota that his dad isn’t the superhero he thought he was, Juri that she won’t be protected anymore
Much has been said about how Kore-eda uses Shoplifters to indict Japan’s social safety net, from its tacit approval of predatory employment practices for lower income workers to its incapability of properly handling abused children and repeat petty offenders. To overlook these things would be an insult to Kore-eda who has repeatedly drawn attention to such social issues over the course of his career but to focus solely on them would irresponsibly reduce Kore-eda’s vision. This is not just a film about Japanese society, it is a film about humanity itself, about the lies we tell ourselves and each other, out of convenience, out of weakness, out of love. The question Kore-eda asks is if we can forgive each other our deceptions, even when they tear the very world apart. Watch and listen closely to the last two scenes as the answer rests first with a whisper, then with a look.