Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the family drama in his Palme D’or-winning Shoplifters, crafting a graceful melodrama about the human contradictions of survival in indifferent societies. Once again the modern master looks at a family dynamic, and one that strays a outside of both the nuclear unit and socioeconomic demands of traditional society. Living in a tucked away shack in Tokyo, the Shibata family’s volatile existence is challenged further when they take in an abused toddler locked out of her home in the cold. Though they originally intend to host the young Yuri for only an evening, they decide to keep her when overhearing the full extent of her parents’ disregard.
What follows is a series of expertly structured and unexpected emotional landmines that keep its questioning of social ethics planted in their inherent humanity. That Kore-eda can do this so gently is part of what makes Shoplifters a masterpiece, what makes it sink into your heart with unassuming ease. Where his contemporaries want punishment and moroseness, he reaches for us to leave the theatre a little more thoughtful about the world around us.
The film shows the personal and the sociopolitical as inextricable, with more damage caused by an unfeeling system than by any of the Shibatas’ petty crimes. The world has discarded them and continues to do so, and not just Yuri. Kirin Kiri’s grandmother sustains the family on a disintegrating pension and some small cash of guilt from infidelity. Lily Franky’s Osamu and wife Nobuyo, played by Sakura Andô, struggle with maintaining odd jobs of no security. Mayu Matsuoka’s Aki is a parlor sex worker, buckling against the emotional distance required of her. And there’s preteen Shota, just beginning to show the rebelliousness of his age as he plays the primary enactor of Osamu’s thieving schemes.
The film’s brightest and most burning concern is our responsibility for one another sometimes in conflict with our own self-preservation. The two are not always mutually exclusive, and saving another can often mean saving ourselves. But due to circumstance, as witnessed in the Shibatas veil of protection, the ties that bind are frail when opposed with dire circumstance and impossible decisions. What Kore-eda allows to be the sustaining force through their trials, miraculously and movingly so, is gratitude. One struggles to find a recent that so equally heals on a personal level while so (however graciously) condemning class divides and the self-perpuating prophecy of the criminal system.
How the film unfolds should be as largely withheld as possible, but that doesn’t mean Kore-eda is stacking the film in manipulative mechanics. The Shibatas’ secrets are delivered slowly and positioned to provide weight to the personal, to complicate their actions against a society too quick to reduce them to dehumanizing effect. To agree with their choices is beside the point, to connect with them is as natural as the ease that Kore-eda molds the ensemble. Led particularly by Andô’s stealthily transformative performance, each player surprises in how they reveal themselves, capitalizing on our assumptions with a deep wisdom for the human spirit. And the power of immersive humanist storytelling.
Shoplifters is a film of radical compassion, demanding our emotional investment as well as a wider awareness of social oppressors. In Kore-eda’s vision, it is not merely familial bonds that run deepest, as we have been told by traditions and strictures alike. Instead we are connected through our fundamental need to connect, to comfort, and maybe sacrifice that love in order to free ourselves. Rare is the salve that also illuminates, and this is one of the many reasons that Shoplifters is one of the highest ranking unmissable films of this year.