Osamu is a day laborer who has been forced to leave his job following a severe injury. He is a member of an impoverished family in Tokyo. He lives with his wife Nobuyo, sister Aki, nephew Shota, and grandmother Hatsue. As a way of saving money, Osamu and Shota routinely shoplift goods, using an intricate system of hand signals as a means of communication. One night, they see Yuri, a girl from the neighborhood they have regularly observed locked out on an apartment balcony. Feeling sympathy for her, they bring her to their home.
Having directed some of the most critically acclaimed Japanese films of the twenty-first century, including Like Father, Like Son and Nobody Knows, Hirokazu Kore-eda, asked himself “what makes a family?” Bearing this question in mind for ten years, Mr. Kore-eda decided to make a socially conscious film, seeking to capture “the family within the society”. To this end, he researched the effects of the Japanese Recession on society, reading media reports of how people lived in poverty and frequently resorted to shoplifting.
From the very beginning, it’s clear Osamu’s family is far from conventional. Nobuyo works in for an industrial laundry service while Aki is employed at a hostess club. Their shared home is owned and supported by the pension of Hatsue’s deceased husband. Despite its unorthodox makeup, you do get a sense of solidarity from this family. You feel as though they’re always looking out for each other – even when engaging in morally dubious activities.
Indeed, Shoplifters operates on a very grey morality. The protagonists regularly commit crimes, but they’re primarily a means to an end. This is best exemplified in their decision to essentially kidnap Yuri, for it would be wholly unconscionable without context. However, the abuse she suffers at her parents’ hands is objectively real; it wasn’t a case of Osamu and Shota jumping to an incorrect conclusion. It’s further proven when Yuri is shown to be much happier with her new family than her real one. To remove any lingering shred of doubt, Yuri’s parents don’t even file a missing person’s report when they realize she’s missing, causing the police to suspect they may have murdered her.
Despite the family’s closeness, a dark cloud seems to surround them. Despite acting as Shota’s father figure, Osamu has never been called “Dad” by him. Friction between the two reaches a peak when Osamu breaks into a van. As Shota believes the items in a store don’t actually belong to anyone, he is visibly upset at the prospect of stealing from something that has an obvious owner. On top of that, Hatsue is frequently shown to visit her husband’s son from his second marriage from whom she is given money. She is then seen gambling away her money in pachinko parlors.
As Hatsue is the greatest hint that this family may not be what it seems, it’s fitting how her sudden death causes the family to fall apart. Her family’s reaction to her death is when the audience fully realizes things aren’t as they seem. When they realize she isn’t breathing, they don’t attempt to call for an ambulance to make absolutely sure she’s dead. Instead, their first instinct is to find an undisclosed place to bury her corpse.
Things get worse when Yuri attempts to take cues from her adopted brother and steal an item from the grocery store. Shota, realizing she’s about to get caught, conspicuously steals multiple items at once, drawing the attention of the shopkeepers. He gets cornered, forcing him to jump off a bridge to escape. Unfortunately, it proves to be a long drop and he ends up breaking his leg. When Osamu attempts to visit Shota in the hospital, his strange behavior ultimately draws the attention of the authorities.
This single moment is when the deception is revealed, thus dissolving the family once and for all. Osamu and Nobuyo had murdered the latter’s abusive ex-husband in a crime of passion. Hatsue’s ex-husband had a son with his second wife. This son would, in turn, have a daughter named Aki. She is heavily implied to have neglected by her parents, prompting her to live with Hatsue while pretending to be Osamu’s sister. Hatsue had been blackmailing Aki’s parents, which ended up being the family’s primary source of income. Finally, and most importantly, Shota was actually a random kid abducted by Nobuyo due to her inability to give birth. Shota, for his part, eventually grew fond of his captors much like Yuri would later.
I have to admit I have mixed feelings when it comes to parsing these revelations. On one hand, they do cast the events of the film leading up to that point in an entirely different light. Indeed, the very premise on which this film is predicated is a lie. The family was held together by deceit and trickery, so it’s not terribly surprising that the entire operation eventually crashes and burns as violently as it does. On the other hand, there are so many twists thrown at the audience that many of them seem to come out of nowhere. Their sheer density ensures that not all of them had the time to properly develop, robbing them of a proper payoff more often than not. Despite these setbacks, the film does stick the landing reasonably well. Though Yuri is back living with her neglectful parents, Shota is able to stop living a lie and return to a normal life. At the same time, it’s shown that he will not forget his time with Osamu’s family.
All in all, Shoplifters is an interesting drama film that sheds some light on what it’s like to live in poverty in contemporary Japan. Though its protagonists aren’t exactly saints, you will be amazed at how much you sympathy you end up giving them. They’re ultimately criminals because it’s the only way they can get by. It’s not a side of Japan filmgoers often got to see. Most Japanese films that centered around crime seemed to focus on a distinctly organized variety – the yakuza, specifically. There were obvious exceptions such as Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, but they still focused on subjects who had gained some form of infamy by the time the credits rolled – whether it was in real life or within the fictional universe the director crafted. Shoplifters doesn’t do this; its protagonists are petty criminals who only do what they do in order to make it through the day. Combined with its slice-of-life themes, Shoplifters is what one would get if one were to use Yasujirō Ozu’s directing style for an adaptation of Oliver Twist. For taking the audience on a unique journey through the desolate side of Tokyo, Shoplifters is worth looking into.
Final Score: 7/10