One of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, Shoplifters conveys a precise and significant message through no one particular specific viewpoint. I’m surprised I didn’t cry, but the story was far too sagacious for that. It planted an idea in my brain from the very first scene, and I knew a solid answer by the end. What is family? Family is what you choose. Blood doesn’t matter, but rather the love that you have for someone and the actions you take to keep them safe. This question of what family truly means isn’t a new concept explored in cinematic narrative, but it’s never been done quite like this. I often prefer films that make me think of 1000 different answers and viewpoints to what the story provides, but Shoplifters raises one question and answers it intelligently and definitively.
Set in Tokyo, Japan, a family of six struggles to make ends meet in their small cramped apartment. The father, Osamu (Lily Franky) and the mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) work as a construction site labourer and hotel launderer, respectively. Together with the grandmother (Kirin Kiki’s last performance before passing away in September) and her pension – plus her other suspicious income – and the older sister Aki’s (Mayu Matsuoku) peep show earnings, their story engages the audience in a socio-political exploration of poverty and the working class from a moral viewpoint, especially as the father and the young son Shota (Jyo Kairi) shoplift in order to subsidise the rest of the necessities and food they need to survive. The newest family member that is introduced later is the small and beaten Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) that Osamu and Nobuyo take in to their home after finding her, starving and freezing, left on the street as her parents fight in a nearby building. Now, it’s not just Yuri that the family take upon themselves to ‘foster’; none of the family is blood-related, instead saved by one another from abusive or traumatic lives. Despite this lack of blood-relation, it is one of the most pure and emotional representations of a family I have ever seen depicted on-screen.
The children know they were ‘saved’; the ‘parents’ and ‘grandmother’ are seemingly transparent about the situation and how they came to be. Before relationships start to falter in the second half of Shoplifters, the characters prove themselves to be worthy of the title of ‘family’, more so than, for example, the parents of Yuri who beat her and burnt her and didn’t show her affection. Each child has their special connection with another family member; Yuri’s and Noboyu’s is especially poignant and provoking. There is tenderness to heal the trauma, each helping the other to cope and recover. It is genuine, and authentic, and even in the heavy final scenes we as the audience fully understand that the real crime was not the shoplifting, but instead the unfair and abusive world that these people face, be it physical and emotional abuse or the financial struggle the working-class face shown through the issues Noboyu and Osamu have to deal with at their jobs.
Important plot points, such as a death or a job loss, happen fluidly and without an intense shift in the narrative rhythm. This doesn’t take away from the emotional weight of anything, but instead shows the organic nature of life for families such as this – there is nothing to do, but to keep going. They are characters of survival, and to survive they need each other to persevere. This representation works well within the timeline as the story is told over many months, allowing a myriad of events to happen that are natural to the standard nuclear family, which in a way the Shibata family are. If anything, they represent it more, as there is nothing but affection within their unit, portraying an almost ideal way of living despite their environment situation and, not forgetting, their crimes. Although titled Shoplifters, this was not the focus of the film. It was about the concept of family, told through beautiful cinematography that captures the quiet dignity of the story.