‘Shoplifters’: New Japanese feature film shows how people survive

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s brilliant new film Shoplifters lodges stubbornly in your consciousness. Although it seems to roll out modestly as a simple tale of marginal people, its conclusion will force you to rethink central tenets of how individuals relate.

Shoplifters continues Kore-eda’s rich exploration of family relationships. His last work, Our Little Sister, swept the Japanese film awards, winning international acclaim. This one may be even better!

The film unwinds slowly. Character sketches are initially vague. Their actions define the family members in the present. We catch only glimpses of the major protagonists at work and interacting with the larger outside world. But their defining moments take place in Grandma’s hardscrabble abode as they bond.

Set against the backdrop of rich, modern Tokyo, the Shibota hovel is the framework of their family unit. At home, the family members are free to express emotions that hold them together. In society, their actions expose the fragility of their persona and even existence.

As day laborer Osamu and his son Shota return from a shoplifting expedition, they encounter the waif Yuri. Skittish and frail from lack of food, Yuri bears scars of physical abuse. Osamu and Shota take her back home. Is she rescued or kidnapped? Over the objections of some family, she is “adopted.”

The Shibota family trains Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) in the techniques involved in shoplifting. Kore-eda establishes dramatic suspense as the Shibotas ply their trade. The tension increases as the complexities of their familial relations are revealed. Living on the margins doesn’t make the lives of the poor simpler or easier. It only heightens the demands of daily struggles. Resolution does not look promising.

Kore-eda’s work, as both director and writer, has won over national and international critics. When Shoplifters won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest award, the Palme d’Or, Jury Prize President Cate Blanchett was effusive: “We were completely bowled over.”

Blanchett, herself a Best Actress Academy Award winner, noted “how intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision.” The ensemble of Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki and child actors Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki make this vision a layered reality that will stay with the viewer, as will the effects of poverty and class in modern prosperous Japan.

The trailer can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.