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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: May 9

Kore-eda’s Shoplifters Explores the Fabric of Families

Cast: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Miyu Sasaki, Jyo Kairi, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka

Related films: After Life, Tokyo Sonata, Hanging Garden, Still Walking, Nobody Knows

Studio: Fuji Television Network

Year: 2018

Verdict: 5/6


Introducing Shoplifters

Shoplifters is Kore-eda’s most accessible film to date. It might not be so subtle in its approach or as sharp in its wit as the director's most famous films, but none match Shoplifters' entertainment level.

That said, the story is dark, with social commentary looming around every corner. The emotional onslaught is in-your-face, which is rather unlike Kore-eda. Yet, at the same time, from the underbelly of Japanese society, rays of hope shine through.

Background and Circumstances

Kore-eda had one question in mind when he was planning to make Shoplifters: What makes a family? In a sense, he elaborated on the subject matter from his 2004 film Nobody Knows. Both films explored the dynamic of lower-class ad-hoc families that were forced to fight for survival.

Shoplifters emphazises that what makes a family within society isn’t necessarily blood bonds but a sense of commune or togetherness. The circumstances that forge family ties are the focal point in Shoplifters.

When making the film, Kore-eda was influenced by the Japanese recession of 2015, which left many people in poverty and resorting to shoplifting. His research included visiting an orphanage where a young homeless girl inspired certain aspects of the production.

In 2018, Shoplifters won the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Soon thereafter, it got widespread critical acclaim for its portrayal of a makeshift family's struggle to stay together in the face of societal expectations and pressures.

What Makes a Family | The Story of Shoplifters

Shoplifters tells the story of a poor makeshift family of five living in a decrepit house on the outskirts of Tokyo. The father in the household, Osamu, is a day laborer who teaches his son Shota how to shoplift to help make ends meet.

The family is changed forever when Osamu and Shota one day add another member to their fold. The family was already sewn together like a patchwork quilt. Another patch wouldn’t make much difference… Or so they thought.

Taking in the neglected little girl Juri to their shoplifting, tax-cheating, and barely surviving family makes ripples that no one could have foreseen. But, as it turns out, adding an innocent member to their not-so-innocent clan forces them to face some hard truths and confront challenging issues.

As the story unfolds, we learn that not everything is as it seems. Secrets and lies strain the family's relationships. Soon, the story takes a dark turn that thoroughly reveals the harsh reality of their situation. Without spoiling the end, it's safe to say that the climax is both shocking and emotional.

The Production of Shoplifters

As always, Kore-eda’s filmmaking is rock solid, but this time around, he somewhat changed his approach. Dialogue tends to be the centerpiece of his films, but Shoplifters relied more on atmosphere, circumstance, and sensationalism. Arguably, the messages between the lines were more politically loaded than ever.

The pace, the story, and the setting were tighter and more accessible, which took attention away from the sharp dialogues that Kore-eda does best. That said, it is hard to criticize him for trying to think outside the box. The dialogue is still top-notch, but not entirely on par with that in Still Walking or Our Little Sister.

Instead, the highlight of Shoplifters is the pristine acting performances. The child actors, in particular, did an awe-inspiring job. Both Miyu Sasaki and Jyo Kairi convincingly conveyed a wide range of complex emotions.

The cast also included veteran actors like Lily Franky and Sakura Ando, who delivered nuanced, emotional, and moving performances. To be honest, though the entire cast performed admirably, Sasaki Miyu and Andô Sakura’s performances stood out a little bit from the rest.

The cinematography is another highlight of Shoplifters. The camera moves in a way that is both intimate and cinematic. An example is Kore-eda's juxtaposition of close-ups of the characters' faces with beautifully composed shots of Tokyo neighborhoods.

The cinematography plays a vital role in conveying the film's themes and underlying messages. For example, the cramped and cluttered apartment reflects the poverty and the societal pressures that the family face.

Hope and Desperation | Shoplifters Analysis

Many of Kore-eda’s films investigated Japanese families from within. Whether they dealt with notions of patriarchy, child negligence, or makeshift families, they all appear symptomatic of a tilted family system about to fall over.

This last remark might seem speculative coming from an outsider, but the changing structure of Japanese families is present, nonetheless. The Japanese work environment has enforced and maintained the housewife mentality way past its due date. As a result, many young people have chosen to sacrifice family life altogether.

Then there’s the problem with the aging population, who lacks someone to care for them. Not to mention the abundance of practical marriages, the hikikomori lifestyle, and single people struggling to find life partners.

Shoplifters explores various complex themes, like poverty, societal pressures, and morality. The film is a poignant commentary on the struggles of the lower classes in modern society and the lengths people will go to to survive.

Shoplifters’ most prominent theme is the idea of family. Even though the family is not related by blood, they rely on and support each other like any other family. As such, Shoplifters raises questions about what it truly means to be a family and whether blood ties are part of the equation.

The family in Shoplifters is family by choice. They might be the most dysfunctional family in history, yet it works better for them than the hand their blood relatives dealt them. The question is if it's coincidental that the film hails from Japan or if it’s symptomatic of a particular society where the cracks grow bigger daily.

Shoplifters is a rare portrayal of the struggles the lower classes face in Japanese society. The story explores the complex dynamics of Japanese family structures and the societal pressures that can lead to poverty and desperation.

At the same time, Shoplifters also showcases the beauty and resilience of the human spirit. The film highlights the importance of connection and empathy and reminds us that there is always hope for a better future, even in the darkest situations.

Film Ties to Shoplifters in Japan and Overseas

To Kore-eda’s dismay, his films seem destined to be compared with the works of Yasujirô Ozu, and Shoplifters is no exception. To be clear, Kore-eda distanced his cinematography in Shoplifters from Ozu’s films, yet there were quite a few commonalities.

Like many of Ozu’s films, Shoplifters focused on family relationships and how society’s norms impact those relationships. Ozu often explored the challenges that working-class families faced to find their place in an ever-changing world, and many times he did so from the viewpoint of children or young adults.

As such, if not taking direct inspiration from Ozu, Kore-eda at least continued to explore and develop the same film traditions that Ozu perfected with films like Tokyo Story (1953), Good Morning (1959), and Floating Weeds (1959).

Overseas, the 2012 Hollywood film Beasts of the Southern Wild shared some parallels with Shoplifters. Both films told the story of families struggling to survive in difficult circumstances on the margins of society. Furthermore, both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Shoplifters dealt with makeshift kinship, impoverished kids, and human resilience.

The Florida Project from 2017 is another Hollywood film with a few things in common with Shoplifters. Both films were set in poverty-stricken communities and explored the relationship between family members and the bonds that hold them together through the eyes of children.

Though The Florida Project didn’t focus on makeshift relationships to the same extent as Shoplifters or Beasts of the Southern Wild, the themes between the lines were similar. They all told stories from the fringes of society, where the human spirit was tested and proved to be just as strong as elsewhere.

Final Verdict for Shoplifters

Shoplifters was packed with strong acting performances, gripping drama, and flawless cinematography. The storytelling depth, coupled with great chemistry between the actors, made it the kind of film that is worth watching again and again.

As for the critique of Kore-eda’s slightly different approach, it might just be yours truly who struggled to put aside his preconceived notions and expectations. In time, Shoplifters might very well be remembered as one of Kore-eda’s finest moments.


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