Shoplifters review: Kore-Eda’s heartbreaking film of belonging and surviving

A child falling from a concrete walkway; the oranges he was carrying rolling away on the road below.

A bunch of exhausted construction workers bitch and moan in the minivan on the way to the site.

A local fixer, pressurising a granny to sell up her house for development, accepts tea and denies the primary reason for his visit.

Two laundry workers are told one of them has to be laid off, and that they have to decide between them who that should be.

Some films you forget even as you’re watching them, but others linger and merge with the real. I still find myself thinking and worrying about the characters in Shoplifters, a sensitive and stark portrayal of Tokyo’s underbelly, even though they are, well, just characters.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winning drama is about an unusual family in a country not known for its tolerance for unusual families. Baldly, they’re crooks: Osamu, the head of the clan and labourer-thief; his partner, Noboyo, laundry worker-thief; scammer-granny and pachinko addict Hatsue, played impishly by Kirin Kiki in her last performance.

Then there’s Aki, peep-show “hostess” and runaway, and Shota, Artful Dodger to Osamu’s Fagin. They all live in a ramshackle old house in Tokyo, bringing in money by various means to supplement granny’s pension and guilt-tripping visits to her late second husband’s family.

Into this mix comes Juri, a little girl from an abusive home who Osamu takes in on a post-shoplifting whim.

Watching this film, as it gradually teased out its characters’ secrets, joys and shared desperation, was a gently stressful experience. It was clear their world was going to come crashing down at any moment, that the hypocrisies of wider society would demand retribution for their tiny crimes.

But I got to see them enjoying fireworks from the roof as a family; Noboyo and Osamu enjoying cold noodles and, later, a post-coitial cigarette in a moment of unusual summer peace; Naboyo and Juri sharing laughs and a bath together; family bonding and puberty lessons on a trip to the beach, and of course, lots of preparing and eating various things stolen from local supermarkets.

In the end it is Shota, who resents the arrival of Jiru and vaguely suspects the life he is leading isn’t quite how things should be, sparks the incident that leads to the breakdown of the family and consequences to rain down on our collection of flawed but struggling humans.

I say struggling in the sense, also that they are trying. This film shows us the side of Japanese society that doesn’t often make it to film: how the poor get by in a country where everyone claims to be middle class; how private property and familial belonging are concepts you subvert at your peril; and most crucially of all, how a few hundred yen croquettes can make all the difference on a cold winter’s day.

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