Many months ago, I saw the trailer for Shoplifters and I was intrigued by the premise. The trailer was actually brilliant, because it not only caught my attention, but managed to grab me emotionally. The 2018 Japanese film has been highly acclaimed, including garnering an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film. I was thrilled to see that it was still playing at The Living Room Theater in Portland, during my recent visit.
The film follows a family of petty criminals. The very first scene has Osamu (Lily Franky), working as a team with his preteen son, Shota (Jyo Kairi) to shoplift from a grocery store. On their way home, they see a young girl crying on a patio. This is not the first time that they have seen her and it is a very cold night. Her parents are arguing in the house, so they take her home with them, with the intention of returning her to her family after she is fed and warm. After dinner, Osamu and his wife, Nobuyo ( Ando Sakura), bring the girl home, but when they near the house, they can hear her parents arguing, including mentioning not wanting their child. They decide to keep the girl, who is named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and they soon discover that she has also been physically abused, which adds fuel to their justification for keeping her safe. As a family of criminals, they don’t dare go to the police, although they realize that they probably should.
Also living in their small house, is an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and her adult granddaughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka.) As the story progresses, we realize that this family unit is not quite what it appears to be and that they are hiding more secrets than shoplifting and a little girl.
Shoplifters is a surprising story. It has twists that I could never have anticipated, only exasperated by characters who keep digging their own grave deeper and deeper, to the point of no return. The story plays with the theme of family and what it means to be family, whether related by blood or by circumstance. Osamu and Nobuyo are tragic characters: two people who desperately want to do the right thing and who love deeply, but whose lies and criminal activities undermine any chance of change. They love both Shota and Yuri, wanting to be a happy family with these children, yet they are teaching these children to take the same path, a path that will give them little choice, but to become criminals themselves. Shota is even lied to, told that only children who are unlucky attend school, effectively keeping him from his peers or from seeing an alternative lifestyle to the one presented to him by Osamu and Nobuyu.
An odd addition to the story comes from Hatsue and Aki. We learn that they are not related to Osamu and Nobuyu, but that an arrangement has been made for them to live as though they are part of the family, in exchange for Hatsue turning over her monthly pension. Hatsue fears dying alone and has made this arrangement, bringing her granddaughter in on the deal. Aki works as a stripper and we later learn, is living this life without her parent’s knowledge. This aspect of the story is flimsy. I kept thinking that I missed a vital scene that explained the situation. I wasn’t sure why Aki would run away from her seemingly well-to-do parents, only to sleep on the floor in a small, squalid apartment with strangers. Also, why would Hatsue take up with these people in the first place? They are ancillary characters that add a sense of mystery, but little else, to the story.
The acting, especially the two children, is outstanding. Those kids will break your heart. Unfortunately, the theater experienced technical difficulties during my screening at the end of the film. During the most pivotal emotional moment, the screen froze. The theater fixed the problem quickly, but the moment was ruined.
Although not a perfect film, I do recommend Shoplifters. It has a lot of heart and the story is very unexpected. It’s a great film for discussion, with themes of what it means to be family and filled with morality issues. It has fine acting all around, including the characters that I thought could have been cut. I didn’t understand their inclusion from a story perspective, but that doesn’t mean that the actors or characters were not compelling. I’m happy to have seen Shoplifters on the big screen and I agree with the many accolades that it has received.