Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda
Actors: Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki
“Only kids who can’t study at home go to school”
That is the underlying sentiment of this film. It looks at societal norms in a different light. Koreeda gives us a unique perspective of lower class Japan. How they make due with what they have. As well as how they twist reality in order to make what everyone else views “dysfunctional” to be “normal”. Going into Shoplifters, I didn’t have any expectations, something that isn’t surprising coming from me. I had no idea what to expect. What I experienced was a heartwarming story about society, class, love, and family. How individual dysfunctional pieces can come together to create a cohesive unit that grows stronger together. It is a simple film, but also complex in its message. And it is one that I think many should watch, especially in a day and age where we seem more dysfunctional than ever.
Shoplifters is a film that revolves around a family of flawed members of society. We have the main couple who act as the “parents” of the family. A teen from a well off family who lied about being in Australia for college, who is instead working in the adult industry. The young boy who was found alone in a car by the parents. An old grandmother who is keeping the family afloat by what she is getting from her husband’s “pension”. And finally, the newest edition is a young girl who is unwanted by her abusive parents. All of these characters, on their own are flawed, broken, and incomplete. However, when they are together they are complete, in their eyes at least. Each member hustles and tries to make the best out of their situation in order to help the family. The kids along with the “father” take frequent trips to various shops where they have perfected the art of shoplifting. The “mother” works at a laundry shop where she also steals due to people forgetting items in their pockets. The broken teen works at a strange shop where she entices men across a tinted window. She does this not for money, rather to feel an everlasting void that she has always had in her heart. Finally the grandmother, uses her dead husband to gather pension funds in order to help take care of the family. The film paints this image of all of these characters. However, as the film progresses we slowly get the truth about each character. And the ugly past reveals itself.
Although I just listed out what each character does to contribute to the film, it is not the full picture. The film for the first hour or so, makes us believe these facts. We go through the daily lives of these people and sympathize with them. However, as the film moves on, Koreeda slowly starts peeling away the veil. We start realizing things about each member. How the “parents” actually killed a person but were not convicted of it due to the judge ruling it was in self defense. The grandmother is actually the ex wife of her long lost husband and frequently pays visits to his other children to get money from them. All of these facts slowly come up and they start playing with the hearts of the viewers. Throughout the first half we are rooting for the family. Although they are stealing things, you see that they are doing it out of necessity. We also see how caring they are. With little that they have they still take care of everyone. They even take in Juri although they have nothing to offer. However, they couldn’t bear take her back to an abusive family that did not even want her. These facts play with the viewers perception of the characters. Do we still root for them? Are they still good people? The answers of these questions vary from viewer to viewer. This internal struggle is what makes the film. It gives us important moral questions, and makes us think about what is right and what is wrong. This is also seen in the film. The son is made to think that only kids who cant study at home go to school. Sort of like a compensation from the parents who cant afford to take him to school. But in his mind, it is completely normal that he isnt going to school. His perception is different. That goes with stealing. He says something along the lines of, if its still in the store nobody owns it yet. It is a sort of justification for the actions he is taking. However, as the film goes towards the end these moral perceptions start changing in Shota. As the viewers are having their dilemma, so is Shota and that is when everything becomes clear and the moral pathway reveals itself to bother the characters behind the screen and the people watching.
Shoplifters is not a film that focuses on technical elements. It doesn’t do anything new. The camera work, story line, and acting are all simple. No extra bells and whistles. But that’s what makes the film great. It presents a simple story, yet you come out with many thoughts. It lingers on in your mind. And you think about the outcome of the characters. As the characters are dysfunctional, so is the film. It jumps around the story and is not cohesive in its structure. Similarly, the ending unfortunately does not neatly tie up in a nice ribbon. It leaves us with a feeling of melancholy. We know the fates of each character. But it is not exactly what we wanted. It leaves this bitter taste, that reflects what the characters also feel when they are struck down with society. This beautiful portrayal of lower class Japan is warm yet bitter at the same time. The film reminds me of the great Yi Yi. There is this quality about east asian’s portrayal of “family” that you really cant see anywhere else in the world. The simplicity of everything, yet at the same time being so deep and complex. It is like a great dish with a few ingredients. It may not have the fanciest of elements, but it itself contains so much inner complexity that it makes the simple become special. That is what Shoplifters is in a nutshell for me. Simple at the top and complex once you start looking deep down. Exactly as the family in the film were. At the face of it we see just a run of the mill lower class family doing whatever it takes to get by. Look a little closer though, and you will start seeing what makes it so special. And that’s why you need to watch the film to see what I mean.