Shoplifters, written and directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, is an unsettling movie filled with a joie de vivre that proves unsustainable and falls apart. The title foregrounds the question of property, which the movie embraces and expands to the term’s original provenance: What does it mean to be proper to a thing? What does it mean to truly belong?
The movie’s answer, in short, is that items in a store belong to nobody, yet things only find their place within a home. However, this leads to a further question: What does it mean for something to find a home?
Given that the movie’s title literally translates as Shoplifting Family, its scope goes far beyond a mere question of possessions and goods to one that rests on questions of family and domesticity.
The movie is drenched in the economic poverty of the focal family, who live in the home of the elder matriarch. It opens with a scene of a man (Lily Franky) and child (Jyo Kairi), Osamu and Shota, walking through a store, acquiring samples of food before conducting an elaborate ballet of precisely timed acquisitions — all small things, but needful items. It’s cleverly shot in a way that allows you to see both the planning and the performance that goes into the miniature heist. What’s small stakes for the store, though, ends up yielding large gains for the family: grandmother (Kiki Kilin), wife Nobuyo (Ando Sakura) and sister Aki (Maksuoka Mayu).
The question of belonging starts when the family acquires a new member: Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), a four-year-old Osamu and Shota discover in the cold as they’re walking home. The real issue for the family rests on resources, not whether it is appropriate to welcome her. After seeing the girl’s hunger and burn marks on her body, the family decides to let Yuri stay. Yuri herself is delighted at the change, and part of the marvel of the movie is bearing witness to how raising a child with love offsets the disadvantages that come with impoverished circumstances.
Viewers quickly sense the ways in which the family has renegotiated value away from questions of a paycheck. The generosity of those who start with little is never in question: what they have, they share. There aren’t good options for work (the family engages in day labor construction, casinos, laundry and a sex shop in addition to other forms of graft and petty theft), but the family, even when short on resources, always has love. Each scene is shot with compassion: Even scenes of betrayal, where economics force friends to face each other as enemies, allow viewers to understand that things aren’t personal.
The lightness of a life not tied to possessions comes into focus in Shoplifters. The camera catches small acts of grace and charity throughout the movie — winks of kindness, care expressed without judgment — which mingle with a depiction of the desperate lengths that desperate people find to survive. These are the moments missing in a middle-class life. Grace, a luxury for those who have, is shown as the lifeblood of those who have less.
The first 90 minutes of the movie provide an excellent portrait of grace, understood by this movie as the relief of shame. This grace, which emanates from the tenderness that Osamu shares with Nobuyo (and which Yuri quickly catches), is what is proper to the family, indeed. The family withholds judgment about poverty, about sexuality, about violence: The characters show an expansive acceptance and a willingness to embrace transience. Thus, when death arrives, it is treated as a small moment for the family (although with major implications for the plot).
The concluding half hour of the film moves far more briskly, as some of the incongruities that are proper to this family fall apart beneath an “objective” social gaze. One of these incongruities, of course, is the fact that the law is less enamored by the magic of a family who has acquired a four-year-old, who it has begun to raise in its tradition of shoplifting (which is proper to the family but not to the greater world). The fact that Yuri was far happier in her new context than she was in the former one is not a point that the law finds important. Like the camera, the law is impersonal — even though its impersonality comes with different consequences.
The cumulative combination of the core strands of the movie — grace and poverty — intertwines into a question of what justice means. Living a loving life is something that one either gets away with or doesn’t, beyond social convention. The conclusion frames how the moments we cherish are so at odds with convention as to be deemed criminal in our current economic structure: What appears as magical can also be seen as mean. It shows how difficult it is to answer questions of justice when one becomes intimately acquainted within the interiors of a home.
Rather than supplying easy answers, Shoplifters allows itself to end with a short shot that shows how the film’s questions will endure and will continue to unsettle our human future.
Shoplifters is currently playing at FilmScene.