Subtle and moving: “Shoplifters” steals hearts

Graphic by Jieyu Feng ’22

Graphic by Jieyu Feng ’22


Director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Like Father, Like Son,” “Nobody Knows” ) paints a poignant picture of a family that survives through theft in his latest film “Shoplifters.” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), Osamu (Lily Franky), Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) all sleep under the same roof in a shabby room, surrounded by other worn out apartment buildings in the sleepy suburbs of Tokyo. They live on Hatsue’s pension and pay from the menial jobs Nobuyo and Osamu are able to work. Most of their food comes from whatever Osamu and Shota can steal from their local supermarket. Their living situation becomes even more complicated when they spot a girl (Miyu Sasaki) freezing outside in the cold, left outside her home by her own parents. Osamu and Nobuyo decide to take the girl away and give her a new name and haircut and welcome her into their lives as a family member.

Kore-eda builds the narrative slowly, making it unclear how exactly the different people in the family are related to each other. Nobuya and Osamu are a couple but what connects them to the elderly Hatsue and young Akhi and Shota remains a mystery that is subtly unfolded through the length of the film. Everything about them conveys a traditional family dynamic. They live in the same room, sometimes sleeping under the same blanket, and share food from the same plate. “Shoplifters” has no dramatic confessions or reveals that leave audience members bating their breath. Kore-eda isn’t interested in melodrama, but instead, with his careful, sympathetic portrayals of his main characters, focuses on truly dissecting what constitutes a family and whether chosen families are really any different from the families we are born into. “Shoplifters” is a touching exploration of love, family and poverty in a city that is often portrayed in films as a center of wealth, excess and business, revealing to the viewer a much darker underbelly away from the dizzying lights and bustling pace of Tokyo. In the world Kore-eda’s protagonists occupy, daily life is a struggle against poverty abated only by their familial bonds.

The actors’ performances are subtle and delicate, but what really stands out in the film is the expertise of the child actors. Sasaki, as the kidnapped girl, is marvelous in her portrayal of the trauma and joy of being abandoned by one family and adopted by another. 12-year-old Kairi’s performance is impressive as well as he grapples with the ethics of stealing to feed his family.

Kore-eda won the Palme D’Or (the highest prize at Cannes) this past year for “Shoplifters” and cemented his place as one of the best filmmakers to ever portray family drama on screen. “Shoplifters” isn’t interested in easy answers, and its purpose isn’t to pass moral judgements. Kore-eda aims to complicate our ideas about what it means to be a family, and asks us to consider what we owe to the most vulnerable among us.