Shoplifters Is a Brilliant Dickensian Tale for a Modern Age

A triumph at Cannes earlier this year, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film is a quietly devastating drama about a family living on the edges of Japanese society.

Magnolia Pictures

Shoplifters is, very quietly, a film about a crisis. The Shibata family comprises three generations crammed together into a small home—the adults earn low wages; work menial jobs; and struggle to feed, clothe, and educate the kids. This family, and their lives, could easily be framed in the dreariest way possible, and the writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been up front about wanting to use his film to address the widening class divides in Japan, which have shredded the country’s social safety net. But his storytelling touch is deft, rendering Shoplifters a warm, heartfelt, and engrossing experience that’s entirely deserving of the Palme d’Or it won at Cannes this year.

One of Japan’s premier directors, Kore-eda is usually drawn to intimate stories. Even though his masterful breakout film, 1998’s After Life, is a supernatural tale about what happens when you die, the movie centers on a tiny governmental office where people are processed before entering heaven. His most recent films, 2016’s After the Storm and 2017’s The Third Murder, were a deadbeat-dad comedy and a mystery, respectively, but both relied on Kore-eda’s sensitivity, his focus on small gestures and meaningful pockets of dialogue, and his gift for developing nuanced characters quickly without relying on exposition.

The situation in Shoplifters is, on the surface, rather complicated. The whole Shibata family lives in the home of grandmother Hatsue (the legendary Kirin Kiki in her final role), who receives a small pension. That income is supplemented by the others taking odd jobs, committing petty theft, and, for Hatsue’s daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), working in a peep show. Early in the movie, Aki’s sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and her husband, Osamu (Lily Franky), come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been abandoned and shows signs of abuse. The Shibatas take her in, even though they don’t really have room for her, thus beginning a peculiar year that Kore-eda meticulously chronicles.

Shoplifters is littered with wry humor and is refreshingly free of judgment. The premise—a poor family essentially kidnaps a young child—could be the foundation for a thriller, but Shoplifters feels more like modern Dickens, with Osamu as a kindly and benevolent version of Fagin, teaching his young charges how to survive in a harsh environment. Along with Yuri, there’s Shota (Jyo Kairi), an older boy who has been raised as a son by Osamu but doesn’t know who his biological parents are. Shota is crucial to the family’s shoplifting schemes and their desperate efforts to scrape by, though Kore-eda is careful to examine the moral repercussions of such a lifestyle.

So much of what the Shibata family does is out of love, but there are heavy prices to pay for not obeying societal rules. Kore-eda isn’t writing a fantasy film where those rules can be ignored forever with impunity. When the Shibatas take Yuri in, they give her a haircut and change her name to avoid attracting attention, but they also show her, for the first time in her life, the value of familial connection.

Early on, Nobuyo offers Yuri something nice and the girl flinches away—she associates gift-giving with her abusive mother, who would buy her things as a cheap apology for her short temper. Nobuyo quickly discerns the situation and gathers Yuri into a hug, whispering in her ear that this is what people who love you should do. Kore-eda’s brutal honesty and matter-of-fact sensibility keep the scene from feeling mawkish. This moment between Nobuyo and Yuri doesn’t solve everything for either character; it’s merely a recognition of how family can both inflict deep pain and heal wounds. The members of the Shibata household are all bruised in their own ways, but that makes their love for one another only more profound.

Eventually, sadly, and unsurprisingly, this world begins to crumble. The film never leans into pure horror or tragedy, but it has elements of both in its denouement, as governmental authorities get involved and everyone tries to figure out a way to stay alive in a country that’s ill-equipped to protect them. The final act of Shoplifters, like all of Kore-eda’s best work, is devastating. After seeing the director tease out every strange bond in this makeshift group, investing his audience fully in their future, one finds it that much harder to watch when things fall apart.