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Japan 121 mins Cert. 15

Shibata Osamu Lily Franky Director Koreeda Hirokazu
Shibata Nobuyo Ando Sakura Screenplay/Story Koreeda Hirokazu
Shibata Aki, ‘Sayaka’ Matsuoka Mayu Cinematography Kondo Rynto
Shibata Shota Jyo Kairi Editor Koreeda Hirokazu
Shibata Hatsue
Hojo Juri, ‘Rin’
Kiki Kilin
Sasaki Miyu
Hosono Haruomi

The winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and another triumph for admired Japanese director Koreeda Hirokazu, a master of unforced intimacy, this wise and insightful film is delicate, poignant and unexpectedly powerful. More than that, under Koreeda’s sensitive, casually assured direction, Shoplifters imperceptibly deepens as it goes on, revealing secrets and lies and expanding its emotional effect on the way to its moving ending. For Shoplifters well understands that family is the most intimate and problematic entity in all our lives. It calls on us to rethink its very nature, its limits, pleasures and responsibilities, unfolding a story that grows in complexity and intimacy almost without our knowing it. Shoplifters is in some ways the culmination of more than two decades of exemplary work, often involving family questions, by Koreeda, whose previous credits include the one-of-a-kind After Life, Nobody Knows, Still Walking and the Cannes jury prizewinning Like Father, Like Son.

Shoplifting poster

Although the multi-generational Shibatas are without a doubt happy, they are also an apologetically unconventional group, a family whose roots can be traced back to both Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” and the classic intergenerational dramas of Japan’s Yasujirō Ozu. Not to put too fine a point on it, but from the pre-school-age youngest girl to the oldest grandmother, they are - as the title indicates - hustlers and scam artists every one, existing on society’s fringe, but bright-eyed despite it all. This good cheer comes from father Osamu, a genial man employed as a day labourer on Tokyo construction sites but supplementing the family income with strategic shoplifting. After all, Osamu believes, as he tells anyone who will listen, “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet.” In fact, Shoplifters opens with a scene of artful pilfering in a neighbourhood supermarket, executed with the precision of a military operation by Osamu and his 12-year-old son Shota. When the two return home, we meet the rest of the clan, including mother Nobuyo, older sister Aki and cranky grandmother Hatsue.

The film’s actual plot begins with Osamu and Nobuyo taking a walk around their neighbourhood on a cold night and hearing a small voice crying and snivelling plaintively from a ground-level balcony. The voice belongs to, a woebegone five-year-old waif with a pitiable face. Sensing neglect and acting on an altruistic impulse, they take her home for the night. Though Hatsue grumbles, “Can’t you bring home something to make money?,” once the discovery of bruises and scars indicates actual parental abuse, the decision is made to take her in permanently.

As Juri integrates into the family and is shown the ropes of shoplifting, we gradually learn more about the people she shares a house with. Nobuyo, for instance, works at an industrial-scale laundry, grandmother Hatsue largely, but not entirely, depends on her pension, and Aki turns out to be a soft-core sex worker, dressing up like a schoolgirl and gyrating for anonymous men who sit stoically behind one-way glass. All these people, even those you might not think would, yearn for human connection and experience the complexity of that need, negotiating shifting relationships with one another as well as a society at large that has its own moralistic point of view and doesn’t necessarily understand the nuances of the Shibatas’ lives. Taking little Juri into their circle, though done with the best intentions, leads to a crescending series of consequences that put the family in kinds of jeopardy no one anticipated while revealing things no one could know.

One of the paradoxical qualities that makes Koreeda such an exceptional director is that his people-oriented stories - and this one is no different - tend to sound more ordinary and less magical than they play on screen. In some ways, it makes more sense to describe a film like Shoplifters by what it doesn’t do as much as by what it does. It doesn’t oversimplify, it doesn’t overemphasize obvious points, it doesn’t hit viewers over the head. Instead, aided by sensitive, empathetic acting, Koreeda uses a quiet, humanistic touch that moves without smothering, that enables us to see his characters as whole people and to understand the difference between what society says it values and what it actually does.

Kenneth Turan at