Hirokazu Kore-eda has quickly become one of my favorite Japanese directors, and I consider it fortuitous that this affinity has cropped up in such a fertile period. Shoplifters is a high watermark in his already illustrious career.
Many folks are probably quick to label him the modern generation’s Ozu because it is an easy and harmless claim to make — a very complimentary one at that. Though, Kore-eda himself rightfully likens his work to Ken Loach or even Mikio Naruse. But if we conjure these names it seems equally apt to consider Vitorio De Sica, particularly The Bicycle Thieves, especially in the context of this film.
He’s shown it before but Kore-eda exposes us to a different stratum of Japan. It is more personal, humble, and if we can make the claim, more realistically transparent. You will not see his world in Lost in Translation (2003). Because he shows us something that many people probably would not want to acknowledge, much less those making the laws and running Japanese society.
His central characters are a husband and wife, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who approach life as counter-cultural enigmas within the country at-large. He is a struggling day laborer, hampered by a sprained ankle, and she is ultimately laid off from her position at a local laundry firm. These are hardly spoilers and more so remarkable indications of just how extraordinary their relationships are. Because together they form a ragtag yet tight-nit nucleus of a family.
Living with them are Grandma (Kiki Kirin), a runaway hostess club worker named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and a taciturn son named Shota. The beauty is how we know these individuals as part of a symbiotic unit. We assume each one is a sister or a son until we realize just how unique this “family” really is.
It begins coming into focus when the “parents” take in a lost little girl named Yuri. There are signs of neglect and even abuse on the part of her parents that leave her seemingly detached from the world. But through constant nurturing and their own brand of endearment, she begins to come out of her shell and feel safe once more. It is through the lens of her situation we most distinctly view the discrepancies apparent in such an overtly unified society.
It is a movie that I must consider in the context of actually spending a great deal of time living in Tokyo. Because the city itself is wonderful, the streets are clean, everything has order and tranquility. But it all comes down to being perceptive. If you look around you begin to see the flaws, the skeletons in the closets, and the issues residing very near the surface.
You have this monumental epidemic of loneliness in this sea of humanity, the reality that many old people die alone without a network of community. Similarly, because they have little welfare or funds, the elderly often take up menial jobs just to survive in their old age. Fewer and fewer people are getting married. The population in Japan is slowly declining.
All types of folks fritter away their days (and money) in Pachinko parlors, or they seek out some kind of intimacy through tawdry forms of sensual pleasure. Even well-to-do families — those who represent what we might call “The Japanese Dream,” fathers with well-paying jobs, a beautiful wife with fine, intelligent kids — they can be dying a little bit every day on the inside too.
If the Shoplifters is capable of pointing us to anything meaningful, at the very least, it suggests how imperative personal relationships are. They must be built on affection and genuine concern. There must be space for feelings and love and closeness. Ironically, for a place with so many people, Tokyo is just about the most isolating place you can possibly exist in.
The film also creates this utterly riveting dichotomy that we might tie back to De Sica’s famed neo-realist picture. Because many people will see the film’s title and frame the entire narrative through that window of perception. Here is a family living in poverty and stealing produce and things to make ends meet. On a surface level, this is all true. In fact, we meet Osamu and Shota in the act of their very meticulous thievery of a grocery store. It begs that question, what would you do to provide for your family?
However, one could argue Shoplifters takes it a step or two further along this moral gradient. What really is right and wrong? Are the ways we monitor the differences in society really just or is there more nuance to the definitions than we normally give allowance for?
To another point, yes, this family is breaking the law. There is no doubt about it whatsoever, and yet you look at how they treat one another and live with such close-knit bonds and you wonder. Again, it is the so-called “honest citizens” who treat their children’s lives with such detachment or worst yet derelicting their duties as parents entirely. They substitute material things for true concern. There is no competition. One is utterly infectious and meaningful, brimming with life and authenticity. The other feels callous, shallow, and fake.
If it is a critique, then it works in the most benevolent commentary known to man. Kore-eda has such an elegant, non-confrontational approach to his material, you never feel like you’re are being preached to. Instead, he rightfully invests in onscreen relationships to make them feel genuine.
Because if shoplifting is in the title, this movie is, nevertheless, an exploration of so many vast and varied topics that are well worth our time and money to consider. Kore-eda makes each one more than worthwhile through his deft touch and handling of each character. His children feel real and genuine even as his adults have multi-faceted contours worth pulling back.
In Matsuoka’s scenes at her work, the few solitary moments we have there somehow evoked Paris, Texas (1984) for me. Because in one sense, we are provided certain expectations — this outer veneer with preconceived notions of what this place will be — only to have them be subverted in the most beautifully illuminating manner possible.
The most meaningful revelation comes when she finally comes face-to-face with one of her customers in a small, intimate space. The man, who barely utters a sound, does not even crave sexual intimacy but simply contact of the most basic nature. He’s lying in her lap docilely, just listening to her talk and sharing a moment for a couple of solitary minutes. They form a connection even in this short span — perhaps more affecting than anything else that has happened to either of them in recent memory.
Out of all the scenes in the movie, this one literally broke my heart. It’s difficult to describe but it is one of the best examples I can put to the debilitating loneliness often found in a place like Tokyo. You begin to understand how monumentally alone people might feel. These are not depraved folks seeking out sensual gratification; these are the isolated men and women looking for some human contact; any contact. You don’t hug in Japan. Even the physical touch in itself is life-giving. Our main family embodies this kind of affection to the core of their being.
While the final act takes us into new territory and for different reasons the makeshift family gets pulled apart at the seams, there is still this wistful sense of relationship. It was never discord that was going to break them apart. It always had to do with the outside stressors and rigid reinforcement of the world around them.
Even in this social structure they still find brief momentary nuggets of continual joy and familial warmth. These emotions are so powerful and so very difficult to hold onto but when you can they imbue life with so much meaning. One prime example is a family pilgrimage to the beach — getting them out of the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life — for a bit of freedom.
Kirin Kiki is phenomenal again in this picture and while not her actual swan song, it is a fitting final testament to her versatile and highly perceptive talents. Although I’ve become acquainted with her quite recently, she will be dearly missed on the cinematic landscape.
The ultimate beauty of this film, however, is the very fact it is not about one individual but the whole interwoven network of lives stitched together. It does feel like a humbling experience. It is a film that suggests revelation can come from the most unassuming of places. We can learn more from a lowly thief than we might ever learn from all the professors, salarymen, and bigwigs in Tokyo. It is a stirring reminder of where true worth and priorities need to come from.