Shoplifters: The Inescapable Importance of Income

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

*** ½ (out of 4)

WARNING: Spoilers in review.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters follows the Shibatas, a family for which “dirt poor” would be far too generous a descriptor. The patriarch (Lily Franky), a kindly, playful man named Osamu, is a laborer who mooches off his mother-in-law’s (Kirin Kiki) monthly pension and shoplifts groceries with the help of his adopted son Shota (Kairi Jyo). Meanwhile, Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) is a laundry worker who gets fired midway through the story. His sister-in-law Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) ekes out a living as a sex worker. And at the film’s start, Osamu also makes the impulsive decision to adopt Juri (Miyu Sasaki), an infant girl who was abandoned by her abusive parents.

On the whole, Shoplifters offers fresh insights into poverty and family, two themes that Kore-eda has grappled with throughout his filmmaking career. With regard to the former, many films about poverty – from The Grapes of Wrath to the recent Capernaum and Kore-eda’s own Nobody Knows – assume that poverty can more or less co-exist with feelings of familial solidarity. Whether they’re family by blood or by circumstance, the protagonists in these movies hardly live in perfect harmony. If anything, in fact, their interactions are often defined by bickering, insults, and even violence. Yet when push comes to shove, the families in these films generally abide by a “we’re all in this together” mentality, and the poignancy of these films frequently has something to do with the consideration that their protagonists show for loved ones.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In Shoplifters, to be sure, the Shibatas certainly do engage in acts of selflessness, particularly when it comes to Juri. As mentioned, when he first sees Juri on the street, Osamu immediately agrees to take her in, even though that ends up putting great strain on his finances. Moreover, throughout the film, he and the other Shibatas voluntarily share their (already extremely tiny) food portions with Juri. And in a key sequence that comes late in the narrative, Shota allows himself to get caught by the police after a failed shoplifting – all for the sake of ensuring that Juri isn’t arrested instead.

All these instances of altruism, however, sit uncomfortably with the Shibatas’ equally frequent displays of cold-blooded selfishness. For instance, after his mother-in-law passes away, Osamu gleefully rummages through her private belongings and appropriates a stack of money that she had been saving up. More shockingly, when Shota is arrested by the police, Osamu and Nobuyo don’t come to check up on him. Rather, they gather their belongings and attempt to flee Tokyo, convinced that the police will be after them next.

It would be wrong to conclude from these scenes that the Shibatas are fundamentally mean people. If anything, in fact, they spend a lot of the movie doing things (going to the beach, playing in the snow) that fit with the stereotypical image of a happy, unified family. Yet since the Shibatas live in a society where basic survival is always a struggle, each of them falls back on self-interest at some point in the narrative, thereby discarding the domestic support structure that they otherwise all cherish and rely on. This contrast between the Shibatas’ “good side” and externally-imposed “bad side” is part of what makes Shoplifters so heartbreaking – and with it, the film gives lie to its predecessors’ claim that poverty and familial love are compatible.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Its depiction of impoverishment aside, Shoplifters also constitutes Kore-eda’s latest meditation on the definition of family. In earlier films like Still Walking and Our Little Sister, Kore-eda offered an Ozu-esque look at the way we’re inevitably shaped by our parents and grandparents, even if we don’t want to be. And in Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda intervened in the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate, suggesting that the latter ultimately counts more than the former. Here in Shoplifters, meanwhile, Kore-eda pursues a new line of inquiry. Does a family need to be materially well-off in order to adequately satisfy a child’s emotional needs?

The apparently obvious answer to this question is that material well-being has nothing to do with emotional well-being – as the saying goes, after all, money can’t buy happiness. Moreover, Kore-eda himself appears to endorse this truism at several points in Shoplifters. Although Osamu is anything but wealthy, after all, Shota clearly loves spending time with him, to the point that he becomes jealous when Osamu adopts Juri (a.k.a. competition for Osamu’s affection). Additionally, even after Shota learns about how his parents behaved after his arrest, he still voluntarily goes fishing with Osamu, a fact that seemingly confirms the meaningfulness of their relationship.

And yet…in light of the aforementioned observations that Kore-eda makes regarding poverty and self-interest, you can’t help but ask some questions. Would a more affluent family have thrown Shota under the bus the way Osamu did after Shota’s arrest? More interestingly, Shota reacts with embarrassment to some of Osamu’s more egregious acts of money-grubbing: for instance, he walks away when Osamu breaks into a car to steal someone’s purse. At the same time, furthermore, Shota oddly refuses to call Osamu “Dad” for most of the film. Are these two aspects of Shota’s attitude towards Osamu related?

As before, Kore-eda doesn’t pose these questions because he wants to condemn Osamu as a negligent monster. Rather, the portrait Kore-eda offers is a more touching one of futile sincerity. As a father, Osamu is defined by his earnestness and his refreshing refusal to patronize children. Yet as suggested by his less-than-exemplary behavior, his material impoverishment ultimately prevents him from being the role model and unstinting source of affection that Shota desires and needs. We may like to think, in short, that money can’t buy happiness. But the unsettling conclusion of Shoplifters is that such an attitude is probably naïve, at least when it comes to child development.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

On the whole, then, Shoplifters testifies to Kore-eda’s defining strength as a director: a remarkable ability to understand his characters’ inner psychology, coupled with a willingness to explore parts of society that we tend to either neglect or disdain. It helps, too, that the film is full of thoughtful performances. Franky imbues his role with heartfelt nuance, Sasaki and Jyo both exhibit impressive maturity, and Kiki’s performance was the perfect way to round out her decade-long collaboration with Kore-eda. Together with Leave No Trace, Shoplifters was one of 2018’s most remarkable finds – namely, a work that roundly rejected the melodrama and pitying condescension that continue to characterize so many depictions of poverty in film.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.


Shoplifters (2018)

Country: Japan. Dialogue in Japanese.

Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some sexual content and nudity.”

Produced by: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Yose Akihiko, Taguchi Hijiri

Written and Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda