Updated: Jul 16, 2021
Kore-eda brings his a-game in a slightly different wrapping!
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Miyu Sasaki, Jyo Kairi, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka
Studio: Fuji Television Network
Shoplifters is yet another return to form for the most significant Japanese director of our age. It might not be so subtle in its approach, or as sharp in its wit as some of Kore-eda’s most famous films. It is still jam packed with strong acting performances, gripping drama and flawless cinematography.
The emotional onslaught is in-your-face, which is rather unlike Kore-eda. The story is pretty dark though, with social commentary looming behind every corner. This kind of depth, coupled with great chemistry between the actors, make Shoplifters the kind of film that is worth watching again and again.
Compared to Still Walking (2008) or Our Little Sister (2015), Shoplifters seems pretty dense the first time around. When re-watched it opens up a plethora of layers which is easier to grasp once the first impact of the story has settled.The tale of a poor family living on the fringe of society is not the most common angle to find in modern day Japanese cinema. This alone makes Shoplifters an interesting case study.
The setting and the reliance on child actors to carry the story along makes it almost inevitable not to think of Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004). There are some evident similarities in atmosphere, which in many ways makes Shoplifters seem like a more refined take on the topic of poverty and social struggles in Japan.
The story in itself is simple enough. A family of five is changed forever when the father and son of the household suddenly decides to 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 a neglected little girl to their shoplifting, tax-cheating and barely surviving family, makes ripples that no one could have foreseen. As it turns out, the implementing of an innocent member in their not so innocent clan forces them to face some hard truths and confront some tough issues.
As always, the film-making of Kore-eda is rock solid, but there are some signs of change in his approach. Usually the dialogue is the center piece of his films. Shoplifters rely more on atmosphere, circumstance and sensationalism. Arguably the focus have been slightly shifted. The essence between the lines is more politically loaded than ever before.
The pace, the story and the setting appears to take some of the attention away from the things that Kore-eda does best. That being said, given that he has delivered what we all love and admire more than a handful times before, it is hard to criticize him for trying to think outside the box.
There is still some very well-crafted dialogue to be found. These are highlighted by a handful of touching moments, which points to the fact that heart of the film lies in the pristine acting performances. In that respect, Sasaki Miyu and Andô Sakura stand out just a little bit more than the rest.
Between the lines
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 that is about to fall over. Coming from an outsider this least remark might seem speculative, but the changing structure of Japanese families is present nonetheless.
The workplace standards have enforced the housewife mentality way past its due date. This in turn has resulted in many young people choosing to sacrifice family life all together. Then there’s the problem with the aging population who is lacking someone to care for them. Not to mention the abundance of practical marriages, hikikomori lifestyle (Wikipedia) and single people struggling to find life partners.
Where Shoplifters - or Kore-eda’s films for that matter - fit into all this is not easy to say. Dysfunctional families exist all over the world, but this is something else. It is a family so invested in their dysfunctional life that it works better for them than the hand they was dealt by their blood relatives. This story is dealing with individuals on the fringe of society, but it also seems symptomatic of a society in which the cracks are growing bigger every day.
As for the slightly different approach by Kore-eda and the critique of such, it might just be yours truly who is struggling to put aside his preconceived notions and expectations. Shoplifters is probably the most accessible Kore-eda ever was. It might very well be remembered as one of his finest moments in the future. Only time will tell.