Bar 2017’s dip into more obviously ‘genre’ territory, Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name pretty much exclusively as a master observer of family. His gentle, humanist films always find families at their centre, whether biological or not, and Shoplifters continues this proud tradition. An empathetic look at the bonds that form between those who slip through society’s cracks, it’s a sweet and gentle film that is hugely rewarding without being particularly challenging.
We first meet this makeshift family on a shoplifting run as ‘father’ Osamu (Lily Franky) and 12 year old ‘son’ Shota (Kairi Jo) gather food and toiletries that their meagre income can’t quite afford. Nobuyo and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) have part-time work, and ‘grandmother’ of the clan Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) collects a pension, but money is often short. The whole unit is swiftly established as unsentimental, but caring, and it’s this latter instinct that wins out when Nobuyo and Shota run into the 5 year old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). Playing out in the icy streets, Yuri shows signs of physical abuse, and after witnessing a violent, screeching row between her parents, Nobuyo makes the snap decision to unofficially adopt her.
It’s a choice that further strains their finances and puts them at legal risk, but also reinvigorates the love and care at the heart of their unconventional relationships. There’s hardly a moment in Shoplifters that isn’t bursting with compassion, and the family’s joys are positively infectious. Aside from Yuri’s briefly glimpsed real parents, Koreeda doesn’t make anyone a villain. Even as the police tighten the net around the family and a sadder, more melancholy tone takes over, no judgement is cast on the officers, who genuinely appear to want what’s best for the kids, even if they cannot possibly understand what that actually is.
Under Koreeda’s eye, the cramped, three-room bungalow that the family calls home looks positively palatial, filled with life and energy and good food. Shoplifters will make you very hungry, as Osamu slurps noodles and Shota constructs delicious-looking meals out of the best parts of various stolen snackboxes. This world is warm and inviting, even, or maybe especially, when nothing is really happening, but Koreeda never loses sight of the social and political failings that have landed this family in their precarious situation. Shoplifters is a smart and richly textured slice of life.