By Matthew Fullerton.
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest drama, the Palme-d’Or-winning Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku), is the story of an out-of-the-ordinary family: Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) is a middle-aged man who, though physically able to work, prefers supporting his family through petty crime. He plies his trade with the boy Shota (Kairi Jō), whom he has groomed in the art of the five-finger-discount and into believing that only children who cannot study at home go to school. Shibata’s wife, the hardened and street-smart Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), works in a large laundry facility by day and drinks beer at home by night. The young aunt Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works in the red-light district and has a special bond with the family matriarch, Grandma Shibata (Kirin Kiki). While on their way home from a successful shoplifting run to the local grocery one cold night, Shibata and Shota find a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), left alone on her mother’s balcony. Concerned, they bring her home, where they find evidence of Yuri being abused. The family of five then becomes six, and the girl is soon introduced to the art of shoplifting by Shibata and Shota. In this way, Kore-eda’s latest oeuvre becomes a fascinating exploration of what it means to be family and how blood-lines might not be the only factor in determining familial bonds.
Early on in Shoplifters, there is a sense that the Shibata’s are an untraditional family, but not simply for the fact they thrive on or take pleasure in the spoils of petty crime. They are, in fact, a fabricated, un-biological unit, whose members, at least in the case of the four adults, have found each other. Initially, it appears that Shibata and Nobuyo are the ones who have orchestrated this family. Before too long, it is revealed that most have joined this family to fulfill some personal or financial purpose. Yet, this reveal is slow, and masterfully so, as it entices the viewer into trying to determine how these people came together. Sometimes the clues are misleading but, in the end, they do not contradict the reality of the family. In one scene, Nobuyo, while on a break with two co-workers, pokes fun at a young woman showing off her baby to the neighbourhood while keeping her past as a call-girl a secret. Ironically, living secret lives is what the Shibata’s do. Nobuyo making fun of another’s past ultimately serves to disguise her own history while, at the same time, it validates for her the authenticity of her family.
Unsurprisingly, the Shibata’s eventually unravel, but they are always aware of their tenuous state. Testimony to this is their seeming obsession with ritual, such as Shota’s finger-and-hand routine before every shoplifting gig and the burning of Yuri’s old clothes, and superstition, namely the bad omen of a toenail left in a shoe. At the same time, they act like they do not care about others or what others might think of them; they have simply adopted the attitude of how they imagine people in the mainstream see their family. Yet in reality, they care: it was concern for Yuri that ultimately brought her to their home in the first place. When Shota does not return one night, Yuri worries about him, and the others conclude that she might not be from a bad home after all: a person who cares for the well-being of others, certainly those not connected by blood, could not have had an upbringing like theirs.
It is not just verbal cues in the narrative that hint at the Shibata family’s unusualness. Kore-eda also does so visually, and skillfully I might add, through his interior shots; particularly the old, crowded Shibata house, with evidence of hoarding everywhere. Kore-eda’s settings are almost jarring in their lack of formality that one normally associates with representations of the home, like in the films of Yasujirō Ozu and Masaki Kobayashi in the Golden Age of Japanese cinema. These interior settings betray that these people are living counter to the well-ordered standards of Japanese society. When the family is exposed, however, Kore-eda skillfully alters his interior shots, applying more technical balance to his settings, such as the hospital and police stations. This symmetry and these tidy locales provide a striking visual contrast to the mess of the Shibata household. Kore-eda uses Golden-Age-esque colours and symmetry as well: one beautifully-shot scene in particular has Shibata smoking in blue light on his apartment balcony while Shota plays below in the snow. These spatial arrangements and technical uses of colour, while most pleasing to the eye, visually reinforce the norms of ordered society being forced on the characters. The disorder of the Shibata’s home ultimately reflected both their happiness and their personal rebellion against the family unit as it is prescribed by society. When their version, and vision, of family life is disrupted, order is imposed.
The Shibata’s could perhaps be criticized for manipulating children to serve their own needs and pursuits. Yet, in the case of the illiterate and seasoned petty criminal Shibata, shoplifting is the only worthwhile skill he feels he can pass on, first to Shota, and then to Yuri. Shoplifters, then, with its adult protagonists seeking validation and redemption through children, is reminiscent of the postwar Italian masterpiece The Bicycle Thief (1948). There are also tones of Ingmar Bergman’s drama Fanny & Alexander (1982), especially in Shota’s frequent retreating from the cruel realities of the adult world through storybooks and hiding places. Another recent Palme d’Or winner, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), also comes to mind, as it, too, focuses on people struggling in a developed nation’s lower depths, who are ultimately drawn together through a thirst to both survive and help others. In the realm of Japanese cinema, Shoplifters’ focus on the human condition of likeable fringe-type characters, like the Shibata’s, and their rundown, claustrophobic physical living space, brings to mind the films of Shohei Imamura.
Shoplifters is alluring in that it forces the viewer to question what family is and whether it can be defined in rigid terms or is better as a fluid construct. The Shibata’s choose the bond and how tight it will be: the thief Shibata would prefer that Shota call him dad, but he does not push it on him; it is a matter of choice. Yuri quickly grows to adore Shota like a brother and Nobuyo as a mother; however, she, too, is not forced to. It is rather a natural instinct; Yuri senses goodness and love in the Shibata family and she chooses to bond to those qualities. “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family,” Shibata proclaims happily, even relevatorily, at one point. It would seem that this has been his, and his family’s, guiding philosophy for some time, and perhaps not such a bad one, in a world fixated on imposed structure and the order of things that can often infringe on home-life and, subsequently, happiness.
Kore-eda’s cast is an impressive one. The actor and writer Lily Franky is very convincing as the criminal Shibata. His demeanour, posture and facial expressions, as well as his sense of humour and simple ways of speaking, are all reminiscent of another great Japanese actor: Ozu’s leading-man Chishū Ryū. Kirin Kiki, who, sadly, died not long after Shoplifters’ completion, is great as the lovingly sneaky and realistic Grandma. Sakura Ando is equally moving as the selfless Nobuyo.
In the late eighties, the English writer Alan Booth abruptly quit his career as a film critic of the cinema of Japan, his adopted country. To him, Japanese cinema, for far too long preoccupied with fashion and formula and a desire to fill movie-theatre seats, had, by this time, all but abandoned independent, artistic and bold filmmaking. Booth’s career in film criticism ended roughly two years before Hirokazu Kore-eda’s started, and he passed away roughly two years before the official release of Kore-eda’s first fictional film, Maborosi (1995). If Booth were alive today, he would likely be impressed with the independence of Kore-eda’s filmography, including Shoplifters, a film that would probably give him renewed hope for a bold new course in Japanese cinema.
Matthew Fullerton researches and writes about the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he lived, worked and studied before becoming an educator and part-time Academic in Nova Scotia, Canada.