Film Review: Shoplifters (Japan, 2018) is a masterful and emotionally stirring look into an unconventional working-class family

It is incredibly hard to believe that we have a new Hirokazu Koreeda film coming out so soon after his last one, the 2017 courtroom drama The Third Murder, and yet we have one in 2018 called Shoplifters! Heralded as a film that goes back to socially relevant roots, similar to the 2004 heartwrenching drama film, Nobody Knows; Shoplifters has been gathering up immense critical acclaim since winning the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

With a fantastically talented cast including Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki and Mayu Matsuoka; a strong yet simple premise about the what it means to be a family and the introducing of new rising talent into the mix, will Shoplifters live up to the favourable reputation? Or will it be an overrated contribution to Koreeda’s oeuvre?

Set in present day Tokyo, a Japanese couple, Osamu and Nobuyo (Lily Franky and Sakura Ando) are stuck with part-time jobs and struggling to make ends meet. In order to survive, they resort to the grounds of shoplifting.

As he is shoplifting for groceries with his son, Shota (Kairi Jyo), they discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a homeless girl. Osamu takes her home, where the family observes evidence of abuse. Despite their strained finances, they informally adopt her and a larger family grows from hence forth. But not without consequences that will put the family to the test.

Shoplifters may feature a criminal act implied by the film title but all is forgiven because it stole this reviewer’s heart and then some, because it is a film that once again shows that director Koreeda is one of Japan’s greatest directors; and not just due to his assured handling of socialist issues as well as his adept interweaving of the human condition with heartfelt pathos, without any sense of cynicism nor ill judgement.

One of the reasons why Shoplifters is so good is because of its tender nature and balance towards its story and its characters. Very little of its drama is telegraphed or delivered bombastically, nor is it understated to the point of insignificance, but the drama and themes (which consist of social commentary about Japan and the living situations there, as well as the social status) are always grounded in character, which gives the film the much needed dramatic punch. One particular scene involves Matsuoka’s character pouring her heart to one of her clients and it never comes off as hokey nor sentimental, even with an off-kilter character reveal at the end of it.

Without any spoilers, the story also does touch on controversial issues involving family and increasingly troubling crimes (especially when the film enters the third act), but Koreeda lends an empathetic viewpoint towards his characters and he provides context and compelling contradictions, and yet never provides easy answers for their motives and understandings.

That is not to say that Shoplifters is without humour, as there is plenty of it and once again, it is all character based. The interactions between the children are amusing, as well as the interaction between Franky’s character and the children and especially the intimate relationship between Franky’s character and Ando’s character, which goes from amusing to playful and alluring. One of the best scenes in the film is where the two rekindle their libidos and it is a gripping, playful and even sexy moment and Franky and Ando nailed it. Pun intended.

It also helps that the characters are all well-defined, distinct; and the talented cast all sink into their roles with gusto. Sakura Ando has always been a talent to behold as her prior performances in films like her acting debut in Love Exposure or her award-winning lead role in 100 Yen Love, but her performance here is one of her best. Without spoilers, there is a scene in the third act, where she confesses her motivations and the nuance and brimming passion she conveys in the scene is absolutely poignant.

Lily Franky can play fatherly, patriarchal roles in his sleep, but in the case of his role in Shoplifters, there’s a rascally edge to his character that makes him both playful and uneasy to be around, like certain characters in the stories of Charles Dickens‘, and Franky conveys that very well. Mayu Matsuoka is fantastic as the eldest daughter of the family, as she keeps secrets from her loved ones and has inner turmoils about her place in life, while the child actors Kairi Jyo and Miyu Sasaki are very good in their acting debuts.

Last, but not least is veteran actress and regular Koreeda collaborator Kirin Kiki. Always a welcome presence in whatever film she appears in, she is amusingly pointed, wonderfully adroit and idiosyncratically lovable here. And in unfortunate circumstances, Kirin’s recent passing adds a layer of melancholy to her scenes that may have existed without.

Overall, Shoplifters is another sterling example in showing the hopeful living in hopelessness, thanks to the humanistic view of its three-dimensional characters, the assured interweaving of heartfelt drama/punchy themes/character groundwork and a top-notch cast working at the top of their game. Definitely one of Koreeda’s best and in the year of 2018.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Shoplifters is in select cinemas now.