Japanese Films

Shoplifters: an intelligent low-key film that examines the nature of family and connection in a fragmented society

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Shoplifters / Manbiki Kazoku” (2018)

In this slow realist drama about an impoverished family in Tokyo, surviving by its wits through a combination of low-paying jobs, living on an aged pensioner’s social security income and shoplifting, director Kore-eda explores a number of themes: the nature of family in modern Japanese society; the loss of connection between individuals and between individuals and community in an urban, technological society; and how people living on the margins of a society that spurns and ignores them come together to survive and find purpose and connection. Osamu Shibata (Franky Lily) and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) live in a tiny shack in a Tokyo neighbourhood; Osamu is a labourer on construction sites and Nobuyo is a low-paid laundry employee. Grandma Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki) lives with them too: she relies on her old age pension and a regular stipend from a couple, the husband of which is the son of her ex-husband and his second wife. Hatsue’s granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a peepshow parlour worker, and 10-year old Shota (Kairi Jo) make up the family unit. When we first meet the family, Osamu and Shota sneak groceries into Shota’s backpack without paying for them and are on their way home when they come across a tiny 4-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering outside her family home … in the middle of winter. Father and son take Yuri home where the women feed her and discover evidence of physical abuse on her scarred arms. In spite of their strained finances, the family accept Yuri as one of their own.

Over the next twelve months, Osamu is injured at work and is laid off; the laundry that employs Nobuyo falls on hard times and she is retrenched. Finances are further strained when Grandma dies. While all this is happening, Shota becomes jealous of the attention Yuri, renamed Rin, receives from the women. At the same time he is teaching Rin to shoplift food items and while she is an eager and ready learner, he is beginning to feel guilty about teaching the child how to break the law. Caught in a dilemma, he finds a way to resolve it but his action leads to dire consequences for Osamu, Nobuyo, Yuri / Rin and himself.

During the course of the film, viewers discover that the Shibata family has been cobbled together in much the same way that Osamu and Shota found Yuri / Rin: Shota himself is a foundling and even Grandma was originally a foundling, albeit at the other end of the age range from those usually abandoned and found by others. The make-up of the Shibata family unit and the way in which it came together says something about the fragmentation of Japanese society in which elderly people end up being shunted into nursing homes or aged care places where they may face bullying and abuse. Yuri / Rin finds unconditional love and affection among supposed “kidnappers” but in her original birth family she receives only cold indifference and neglect. Nobuyo has a dark past that involves the murder of a previous husband.

The film’s minimal and understated style, suggestive of a documentary, combined with the laid-back pace and the actors’ naturalistic performances, especially those of the child actors who carry much of the film on their slim shoulders, reveals subtle nuances and social realist criticism in the story that gently unfolds. Through the Shibatas’ interactions, we come to see how cold, unyielding and bureaucratic Japanese society has become. Children are pulled away from people who love and care for them and parked in orphanages or returned to situations where their lives are put in danger – simply because in the eyes of society or the law, this is the “right” thing to do. Director Kore-eda questions the ethics and values upheld by Japanese society and exposes them as hollow shells through a family of morally dubious characters who may have sound reasons for doing what they do to survive.

The issues raised in “Shoplifters” are dealt with intelligently with a minimum of fuss and sentiment but leave a huge impression on viewers. This film is essential viewing.