Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda; starring: Kriin Kiki, Lily Franky, Sosuke Ikematsu, Sakura Ando, Moemi Katayama, Mayu Matsuoka. Cert 15, 121 mins
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is set in contemporary Japan but has a storyline which could have been filched from Charles Dickens. The film (which won Cannes’ biggest prize the Palme d’Or earlier this summer) combines tear-jerking sentimentality with hard-hitting social comment. It has doe-eyed kids stealing from shops and supermarkets. Its main male character has a hint of Fagin about him.
Kore-eda’s affection for his protagonists is obvious. If they game the system and engage in petty crime, they do so to survive. They’re a close-knit family who depend on one another, even if the ties between aren’t what they seem. Kore-eda excels in working with kids. He again elicits extraordinarily moving and layered performances from his child actors here.
Osamu (Lily Franky) is the feckless patriarch, the construction site labourer and small-time thief who has taught young boy Shota (Kairi Jyo) how to pinch groceries without being caught. As he confesses, he just didn’t have anything else to pass on to the boy – it’s the only skill he had to share. To the authorities, he is a scrounger and criminal who exploits children and isn’t brave enough to stick around when they get in trouble. From another vantage point, though, he is the hero of the story.
He provides for the extended family. He intervenes when he sees a little girl, hungry, suffering from burn marks and seemingly abandoned, bringing her to join the extended family. The media may see this as child abduction but he and his wife reason that they’re not asking for a ransom. Besides, her mother didn’t report her missing. They’re very kind to Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) teaching her old wives’ remedies to stop her bed-wetting and accepting her as a daughter. Osamu, though, is also soon taking her out on the shoplifting expeditions.
Kore-eda is lifting the lid on the “gig” economy in Japan. What he discovers is profoundly depressing. Everybody, young and old, is on the make. The women work long hours in badly paid jobs in huge laundries or take jobs as sex workers. The men work on building sites. The elderly grandmother ekes out an existence on a pension which she shares with others. “Everybody gets a little poorer,” one character observes as two friends are forced to discuss among each other who will hold on to a job. (Cuts are being made and there is only room for one of them.) The family lives in a cramped apartment with kids sleeping in cupboards.
In spite of the brutality of the environment, the tone of the film is often surprisingly upbeat. Osamu is a resilient and humorous figure. Kore-eda shows family meals and even a trip to the beach. The adults may be after the grandmother’s pension but she is treated far better than the old timers in other Japanese movies. Osamu is far kinder to her, for example, than the self-obsessed children are to the elderly parents in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.
The kids don’t get much in the way of education but they’re always told, “only kids who can’t study at home go to school”. They look in increasing bewilderment at Osamu’s antics. There is a tragi-comic moment in which Shota is acting as lookout when Osamu smashes a car window to steal something. As he sees Osamu hobble away with his booty, the boy realises what an absurd and pathetic figure he is.
Shoplifters wasn’t an obvious winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or. It’s a modest, sometimes maudlin family drama about chancers on the margins. What makes it such an enrapturing experience is the tenderness, humour and detail Kore-eda brings to his material. He doesn’t resort to polemical tub-thumping about the social system which has allowed Osamu and the others to fall so far through the cracks. Nor is he judgmental about their scams. Instead, he highlights their humanity and their attempts to help each other, even when their own lives are threatening to unravel.
Shoplifters will be released in UK cinemas on 23 November
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