After venturing into the territory of world of law and the aspect of truth with The Third Murder (2017), Kore-eda returns, with Shoplifters (2018), to those themes so typical for his oeuvre: family and social bonds. Ever eager to review Kore-eda’s narratives, we are proud to be able to present our review of the universally acclaimed and Palme D’or winner Shoplifters.
On their way back home from one of their stealing trips, Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Kairi Enyo) find a girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sitting outside in the freezing cold. Osamu invites her immediately home to eat croquettes. While the parental neglect is obvious due to her frailness and unkept appearance, Hatsuo (Kirin Kiki), the grandmother of the family, also discovers the many scars she’s covered with.
After a discussion between Osamu and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), they ultimately decide to return her home. But after hearing the row between Yuri’s mother and her supposed father, Nobuyo is unable to return her and decides to ‘steal’ her from her mother. Then, one day, some two months after Yuri’s kidnapping, the news of her disappearance hits the media.
Shoplifters is a narrative about social bonds and their importance for one’s emotional well-being. More specifically, the narrative is nothing other than a subtle meditation on what, beyond any biological connection, constitutes a genuine social bond and what constitutes a relation that one can call familial. In line with these themes, the narrative also emphasizes the very difficulty of giving someone without any biological relation the mandate to bear the signifier ‘mother’ or ‘father’.
While is not difficult to see that Shoplifters is another take on themes Kore-eda already explored in Like Father, Like Son (2014), Kore-eda, this time around, approaches these themes from the perspective of a family living at the margins of society. In a tempo so characteristic of the director, we are slowly introduced, through the framing of their daily interactions, to the particularity of each member of the family. As this naturally paced exploration continues, the position of the family – and this is one of its greatest strengths – is subtly contextualized within the greater Japanese society. Furthermore, Kore-eda succeeds to turn this contextualization into a subtle critique on (certain aspects of) Japanese society as such (Narra-note 1).
While via Osamu, who works in construction, and Nobuyo certain problematic dimensions of work – conditions still persisting in contemporary Japan – are highlighted, Yuri evokes a whole range of social problems so easily hidden from the public eye: the reality of parental neglect, domestic abuse, and of children that are unwanted. Furthermore, the narrative also highlights those places that are often attractive in the eyes of people with a lower socioeconomic status: pachinko and, in the case of Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), the soft-erotic business (Narra–note 2).
While every member of the narrative is important to the narrative, there are nevertheless two relations that form the backbone of the narrative structure. The first relation concerns the relation between Osamu, the father of the family, and Shota. It is important to note that Shota, a boy in his early puberty, cannot call Osamu ‘father’. Though they obviously share a bond (i.e. the stealing trips), this bond is, as seen from Shota’s perspective, not a bond with a figure he can yet call ‘father’ (Narra-note 3 (spoiler)).
The second relation concerns Yuri and her relationship with Osamu and his wife Nobuyo. While Osamu, supported by the grandmother of the family, create a positive place for her, it is only after her disappearance hits the news and in response to her choice to stay, that the other family members, especially Nobuyo, take a more active role in her integration – in the cultivation of her positive place – into the family structure (Narra-note 4).
While the shoplifting family is still defined and structured by money or the lack thereof, Shoplifters shows that, in essence, humanity is unrelated to the ever enduring exchange of money and consumption. The heartwarming and touching moments are always function of human interactions as such (Structure-note 1, Narra-note 5). Be it the interactions between father and son, those between Nobuyo and Yuri, those between Nobuyo and Osamu, or the general interactions between the family members, it is by framing the sincerity and the beauty of interactions, that Kore-eda succeeds, once again, in emphasizing the importance of human interactions for one’s subjective well-being in a heartfelt and touching way (Narra-note 6).
The cinematography of Shoplifters is a cinematography full of subtle movement – and some truly exquisite tracking shots. In many cases, the movement is so subtle that the spectator will not even realize the movement characterizing that particular shot. Other cinematographic elements worth mentioning are Kore-eda’s frequent use of low camera perspectives, especially when framing interior scenes, his tendency to place the horizontal center line below the eyes of the framed character, and his use of in-frame framing. Concerning the latter, it would not be wrong to say that Kore-eda, much like Yasujiro Ozu, is a master in applying in-frame framing. The subtle way Kore-eda is able to emphasize characters in the narrative space by exploiting the architecture and the cluttered nature of the house is truly magnificent.
Like in Kore-eda’s other narratives, musical accompaniment is employed to empower the heartfelt and touching moments – the moments of humanity. The beauty of Kore-eda’s work is that he always, how serious his narratives may be, infuses his narratives with a subtle positivity. Furthermore, due to Kore-eda’s exquisite narrative structure, these heartwarming moments are ultimately re-framed, a re-framing that, supported by the versatility of the music, infuses every touching moment with Mono No Aware, i.e. a certain nostalgic sadness about the experienced positivity.
The ability of the narrative to touch the spectator is (logically) empowered by the natural acting performances of each and the chemistry that exists between the actors. Emotions and interactions feel real and genuine. We might even feel like Kore-eda – and maybe that is the very point of the narrative – is framing a real family. One performance worth singling out is the wonderful performance of Miyu Sasaki – a performance so central to the moving potential of the narrative. With this performance, Kore-eda reveals himself, once again, to be a master of directing children.
This exquisite touching family narrative is – whichever way you look at it, another must-see from Kore-eda and a corroboration of the fact that he is one of the best directors currently alive. Even though the themes touched upon in Shoplifters are familiar in Kore-eda’s oeuvre, this narrative constitutes the deepest exploration yet into the question of what family is and what a bond beneficial to one’s subjective well-being is made of. With Shoplifters, Kore-eda touchingly emphasizes that, while there may be something irreducible about the biological bond people share, genuine loving relationships have nothing to do with this bond.
Narra-note 1: The final shot of the narrative, a shot concerning Yuri, cannot be taken as anything other than as an explicit commentary on the Japanese law-system as such.
Narra-note 2: Even though it is a small detail, Aki does not have to contribute any money. What she earns is hers.
Narra-note 3: As will become apparent as the narrative develops, Shota is not a biological son of Nobuyo and Osamu.
Narra-note 4: In the shoplifting family Yuri receives a positive presence, whereas her former place, her position is the triangle with her mother and her supposed father was mainly marked by negativity.
Narra-note 5: When Hatsuo goes to pay respects to her deceased husband, who had a another family after divorcing Hatsuo, the sole purpose of visiting her husband’s son and their shrine is because of the money she receives. This scene underlines beautifully that not all human interactions nowadays are genuine or sincere.
Structure-note 1: It is Yuri’s choice to stay that acts a sort of narrative catalyst, as it is only from then on that the heartwarming and touching moments quickly succeed each other.
Narra-note 6: As the narrative progresses, we also are slowly introduced to how Yuri’s psychology works. As she has been in an abusive context for a long time, this context structured her understanding of how human interactions work.