The last couple of months of the year never fail to remind us of one hard fact: We can’t choose our family. As we come together to feast and to spend money on each other (and ourselves), we tend to overdo those traditions out of anxiety, tiredness, or anger. Luckily, another winter tradition in some families is the collective trip to the cinema, a chance to regroup for a few blessed hours, without having to engage in conversation. Nothing better than the dark theater to be alone together.
To make that joyful, paradoxically solitary group experience even more escapist, we are lucky to have Shoplifters, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, which arrives right on time for the holiday season and its many exhausting family reunions. A Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, it’s been marketed as a seemingly tender and uplifting family drama (at least from the look of its U.S. poster), which, combined with a potential Oscar nomination, could compel even your parents to get off the couch for an afternoon of light entertainment. But underneath its crowd-pleasing appearances, this slowly engrossing film hides an uncompromising defense of chosen bonds over inherited ones, open-hearted generosity, and life outside the stifling rules of capitalism. That’s some surprise stuffing for you.
The heroes of Kore-eda’s 13th feature are modern-day outsiders who subsist thanks to precarious factory jobs, but also and mainly by shoplifting items they either use or resell. They don’t see this occupation as stealing, however, since on the store shelves, nothing yet belongs to anyone. They have no grand schemes beyond scraping by. Kore-eda, whose films have always paid attention to the quotidian, focuses on the daily routines of his characters—as well as their modest illegal activities—to show the human beings behind the petty thieves. His opening sequence playfully reveals the tactics used by the middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky) and the preteen boy Shota (Kairi Jyo) to create distractions and return home with as many free food items as possible. Through their collaboration, Kore-eda also hints at a bond of an unusual kind. It is unclear whether Osamu is actually Shota’s father, and their exchange after the deed is done doesn’t jibe with the typical familiarity of paternal affection or authority. Yet the connection is there, with both characters relying on each other to get the goods and Osamu showing plenty of tenderness for the boy. Like a cross-generation buddy comedy duo, they form an odd yet compelling team.
But Osamu and Shota are only two of the five members of their household, who all live together in a cramped house in the middle of Tokyo, in plain sight but invisible to their neighbors (a common urban experience these days) and the welfare services. When social worker visits the family matriarch, Grandma (Kirin Kiki), everyone else disappears and she pretends to be a lonely and neglected old woman. Kore-eda has always been interested in familial ties and their straining, and the makeshift family of Shoplifters marks his progression toward an ever-bolder critique of the traditional family unit. His 2004 film Nobody Knows, inspired by true events, followed the worsening daily struggles of three young half-siblings who, after their mother abandons them in their tiny apartment, have to live by themselves. If Shoplifters isn’t as grim, it’s only because its determined attack on the fragility of those bonds appears in counterpoint, like a photo negative, as the disquieting subtext to the bizarre but charming life that the shoplifters are working hard to perpetuate.
It’s evident in his attention to detail as well as his predilection for natural performances and casual moments that Kore-eda started off as a documentary filmmaker. His focus on children also highlights this tendency. As he did in Nobody Knows, he centers Shoplifters on the experience of a child. A new member soon joins the gang when Osamu and his wife Nobuyo (the wonderfully relaxed and cool Sakura Ando, arguably the cast’s MVP) see a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), alone and starving in her house nearby, and decide to take her home to feed her. Yuri doesn’t say much, but she doesn’t need to: it becomes clear that her own parents have never treated her well. Kore-eda doesn’t go far into exploring the damage done, instead respectfully and tenderly showing how care and affection from her new family feels foreign to the girl. It is this irony of relatives being a poor substitute for the kindness of strangers that Kore-eda makes quietly heartbreaking, yet liberating as well: Yuri’s chances at receiving love are not limited to her rotten family tree.
It might be hard for Western audiences to realize just how bold Kore-eda’s ideas about family life are, but the lifestyle of his ensemble is completely at odds with the Japanese standards of both consumerism and familial rule. Perhaps it is his predilection for lunch and dinner scenes that have made critics often compare Kore-eda to Yasujiro Ozu, the master of the Japanese family drama. There is something provocative and reassuring about those moments of togetherness and loud noodle slurping between Kore-eda’s protagonists. Yuri at first sheepishly stays away from the table, but she is quickly yet unceremoniously invited to join the circle and share the food that Osamu found for everyone. There is no territoriality here, despite the family’s limited means, but neither is there sentimentality. Eating just enough so that others can have their needs covered isn’t a particularly laudable act in this house, but simply the best way to live comfortably, freely, and fairly.
Even as Grandma teases Osamu, or Shota shows typical teenage boy impatience toward Yuri, energy flows effortlessly between all of them. Osamu and Nobuyo’s relationship as a couple seems, magnificently, at once open and intimate, without either of them ever needing to strain to get affection or space from the other. Kore-eda understands—and communicates gently—that what defines healthy relationships isn’t big gestures, but the free offering of affection with no expectations of getting anything in return. This trust in generosity, unmistakably, looks a lot like the opposite of capitalism.
Contrast this blended family’s survival mode to Japan’s fast economic expansion heading into and through the 21st century, and Tokyo’s status as a global financial and technological hub, and Kore-eda’s ground-level humanism becomes radical. By giving attention to these “invisible people,” the director celebrates their independence, but also decries, again without ever turning saccharine, the overpowering heartlessness of capitalism. As much as his characters want to escape the pull of the “invisible hand,” money rules their day-to-day life: When Osamu steals expensive fishing rods, he’s excited to sell them and not have to work for a whole month. And when an influx of money results from someone’s tragedy, the trust at the basis of the family’s selfless system is corroded. For Kore-eda, money unavoidably gives reliance on each other the appearance of abuse, even in the eyes of the kindest shoplifter. Doubt takes over, and the herd disperses into lonely wolves, aggressive because they are scared of getting hurt again.
Ever the gentle moralist, however, Kore-eda offers a measured resolution, yet one that is all the more unnerving for being so tender and generous. Like an audacious secret gesture to fool the store clerk and the financiers, Shoplifters’ ending seems to tell the heartbroken free-spirited spectator, “Don’t worry, I’ve still got you covered.”