Late in Shoplifters, an off-camera speaker asks Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura Ando) a question, and director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s camera placidly stares at her, watching as she runs her hands through her hair, over her mouth, and across her cheeks, wiping away tears that slowly begin to trickle toward her jaw. It’s a simple, unadorned shot—one that begins unassumingly and ends the same way, with Nobuyo only managing an “I wonder…” as a response. Yet as the seconds tick by, this single composition generates a startling, almost heartbreaking power, born from Ando’s unaffected evocation of her character’s complex emotional state, and from the intense empathy with which Kore-eda shows her in this time of great sorrow and loss. Quietly devastating, it’s a masterpiece in miniature.
That such raw, overwhelming sentiment might come from such an aesthetically and dramatically modest sequence is no surprise, given that over the course of Kore-eda’s 20-year filmmaking career, the Japanese auteur—in gems such as After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013)—has proven himself an elite craftsman of gentle, piercing sociological dramas. His latest, premiering at the New York Film Festival before arriving in theaters on November 23, is a kindred spirit to those prior triumphs, and in particular to Nobody Knows, with which it shares compassion for those on the economic margins—and, in particular, in children making their way on society’s fringe. Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (and Japan’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next February’s Academy Awards), the film is as masterful, and moving, as any released this year.
“Sometimes, it’s better to choose your own family,” says Nobuyo during a visit to the beach, and that empowered notion is at the core of Shoplifters. Kore-eda’s film concerns Nobuyo and her husband Osamu (Lily Franky), who reside in a ramshackle home with granny Hatsue (Kirin Kiki, who passed away in mid-September), sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and son Shota (Jyo Kairi). Though Nobuyo works at a laundromat and Hatsue receives a pension courtesy of her deceased husband, Osamu and Shota supplement the household’s income by pilfering goods from a local grocery store and a mom-and-pop market. As elucidated in an amusing opening sequence, they’re a skillful thieving pair, with Osamu serving as both a lookout—and a physical shield—for Shota as the boy nonchalantly slips goods into his backpack. They’re professionals at their illicit pastime, which, as Shota explains during a casual conversation, Osamu justifies by saying that retail items don’t yet have proper owners and are thus up for grabs.
Shoplifters soon finds its ragtag characters joined by a new member when, on the way home from a petty robbery, Osamu and Shota come upon Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a five-year-old girl cowering from her neglectful parents. Osamu takes pity on her and brings her back for a fresh meal. Despite everyone agreeing that she can’t stay because it’ll look like kidnapping, Nobuyo and Osamu’s efforts to return her are thwarted by the sounds of the girl’s parents in a heated, hateful exchange about their offspring. Out of genuine compassion for this tiny kid, an outcast not dissimilar to themselves, they take her in, eventually renaming her Lin.
Something isn’t on the up and up about the Shibata tribe, however, and not just because of their decision regarding Yuri. Their ages don’t seem to logically correspond with each other, for example, and Shota apparently still refuses to call Osamu “dad.” Kore-eda lets these details gradually slip, until it becomes clear that these characters aren’t blood relatives; on the contrary, they’re a makeshift unit of some sort. In that light, Yuri’s inclusion in their life, replete with Osamu telling Shota to call her “sister”—a designation he initially dislikes, because he fears she’ll displace him in Osamu’s heart—isn’t only sweet but also a tad disturbing. Kore-eda maintains considerable mystery about his scenario’s underlying reality, even as the film confidently ambles forward, exposing along the way new aspects of its protagonists’ personalities and circumstances.
Be it Aki sharing a tender hug with a bruised-knuckled boy at her peep-show job, or Nobuyo and Yuri comparing their similar forearm-burn scares in the bath, Shoplifters paints a portrait of disparate, damaged souls bonded by suffering and strengthened by their togetherness, no matter how unlikely it’s been forged. For his tale’s first half, Kore-eda is content to simply co-exist with these colorful figures as they frolic in the ocean and prescribe superstitious cures for bed-wetting (licking salt!). Nonetheless, anxieties about money, the law, and the young’s responsibility for the old (and vice versa) are omnipresent, and come to the fore once the proceedings take a turn for the depressingly (if inevitably) messy and miserable. When bombshells arrive, they resound with shattering force, in large part because Kore-Eda has so thoroughly, and sensitively, endeared us to the Shibatas, shortcomings and all.
If it sounds like I’m being vague about Shoplifters’ eventual destination, it’s because revealing this delicate story’s surprises would not only be unkind but would also misleadingly suggest that the director’s intentions are of a shock-and-awe-ish variety. Kore-eda is interested, first and foremost, in the definition of family: is it a byproduct of biology, or of something deeper, like communal experience, or love? Through surprising and pointed third-act revelations, his film addresses—and complicates—that query. Yet it’s there from the start, in the sight of Hatsue considering her dwindling mortality while watching the rest of her clan play in the surf, and in Nobuyo and Osamu’s unexpected rainy-day lovemaking, which is followed by Osamu’s playful boast, and concluded by the sudden arrival of Shota and Yuri.
In the post-coital moments of that latter sequence, a naked Nobuyo lying on her stomach and Osamu sitting nearby smoking a cigarette, Shoplifters captures a measure of understated bliss—of being momentarily content with the world, yourself, and the one you love—that’s hard to come by, in movies and in life. Without uttering a word, it says everything about Kore-eda’s generous hopefulness about these wayward individuals. And though ensuing, tragic developments eventually temper that optimism, it lingers, defiantly and unforgettably.