It would have been easy for Shoplifters to glamorize the criminal acts of its central characters. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film follows an impoverished Tokyo family surviving on a hierarchical system of thievery, nicking small items where the opportunity arises or, more frequently, setting out on an express mission to steal that which they need. The setup, of course, is worlds away from the heist genre, but it’s still refreshing to experience these criminal acts for what they actually are: desperate, thrill-less acts devoid of meticulous planning or grifter’s luck. And if there is any thrill in stealing shampoo and ramen noodles, it’s a thrill that quickly sinks into the pit of one’s stomach, weighed by the immorality of it all.
Shoplifting — or crime, more broadly — isn’t really the main focus of Shoplifters, anyway. This is a movie about family, and the family in focus happens to sometimes commit criminal acts. For the first chunk of the film, we might almost leave it at that. We spend as much time at home in quiet moments with the members of this family as we do in the “action” of their thievery, although it quickly becomes apparent that both are survival tactics. Fulfilling the role of Family Member, in many ways, provides much the same life-giving sustenance as does the role of Thief.
Whether this sentiment is somewhat Dickensian in nature is up for debate, though a great many reviews of Shoplifters have leaned on that anyway (Lily Franky’s character is referred to in relation to Fagin in nearly every review I’ve read, including this one from the Guardian, this one from the Economist, this one from SlashFilm…). The elements Shoplifters seems to care about just aren’t really of a pair with those of a tale about a band of orphans teaming up to go pickpocketing. The family has banded together into a little society of criminals, yes, but there’s very little artfulness in their dodging.
Again, this bubbles beneath the surface throughout the first chunk of Kore-eda’s film and boils to the forefront by the conclusion. Crime, we learn, is not only what binds this family together now but what brought them together in the first place. Maybe Shoplifters was concerned with crime all along, just preoccupied with the aftermath and consequence of it rather than the thrill. Kore-eda’s restraint should be lauded here, too, as information is disseminated about each character in a way that enlightens previous actions but never feels like a grand “gotcha” reveal. A lesser film would have shown the hand earlier, but Shoplifters sticks in the mind primarily because of the way in which these crucial character histories are doled out piecemeal.
Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterwork, might be a more fitting analogue than Oliver Twist for its themes of poverty and crime. Few characters in either Thieves or Shoplifters come from wealth or an upper class, although certain members of the Shoplifters family do squeeze a few extra bucks out of the rich here and there. But the idea that Thieves put forth was that the central battle for those on the fringes of society, contrary to popular belief, isn’t Rich vs. Poor, Lawman vs. Criminal, or Citizen vs. Outcast. While those battles do exist, true poverty brings with it a harsher fight: Poor vs. Poor, Criminal vs. Criminal, Outcast vs. Outcast.
Time and again the family are pitted against each other for survival, particularly at the film’s climax. Even outside the family, Nobuyo (played by the fantastic Sakura Ando) is forced up against another coworker at the laundromat when only one of them can keep a remaining position. Their supervisor, notably, implores them to “work it out yourselves” instead of making a decision. While it’s not as obvious a theme as it is in Bicycle Thieves, discomfort within and amongst the lower echelons of this society keeps cropping up in Shoplifters. There’s even another family, largely unseen except for their mistreated little daughter, with whom our main characters engage in an unwitting fight for ownership of the girl.
That’s always part of the equation, too: ownership, belonging, loneliness. It’s a messy business, being a part of a family, rife with dishonesty and doubt. Maybe that’s true of a family regardless of socioeconomic standing, but Shoplifters successfully finds a way to tackle that truth in an immediate and honest way. Keep an eye out for Kore-eda’s film come Oscar season, as this one will almost certainly continue to resonate as it screens at stateside festivals over the next few months.