Found family: Shoplifters turns tradition upside down

Shoplifters is a masterful portrayal of a struggling Japanese household that unites through circumstances rather than blood. Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures Shoplifters is a masterful portrayal of a struggling Japanese household that unites through circumstances rather than blood. Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures

In Shoplifters, director Hirokazu Kore-eda explores the beauty and morality that forms within societal fractures. The characters live as any family ought: They are supportive, caring, loving, and do what they must to help each other survive. They uphold the epitome of family values, except they are criminals and none of them are related. Every member is better off in this household than in their previous situation, whether they left by choice or by necessity. The freedom that they find with each other creates a stronger bond than with their own blood relations.

The group survives through a series of petty cons—best left unspoiled—and shoplifting, a routine developed between “father” Osamu (Lily Franky) and “son” Shota (Jyo Kairi). One cold day, on the way home from a good haul, they find a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering and hungry, forgotten on her family’s porch. They take her in for a warm meal and a place to sleep, and she quickly finds a home with the group, under the care of “mother” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando). Whatever their reason for being there, everyone in this “family” settles in to their roles: caring grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), young woman asserting her independence Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), adolescent boy in search of a role model Shota, and parents Osamu and Nobuyo. Even though no one is who they seem on first impression, it’s more stability than the young girl has known with her own family.

Despite the positive outlook and lack of judgment in Kore-eda’s direction, this is not a sanitized view of poverty, or entertainment at the expense of the underprivileged. As you learn more about the characters, you wonder about their stories. Did they escape their situation willingly, or are they on the run? They can never be too public with their arrangement for fear of legal repercussions. And the philosophy of shoplifting that Osamu passes on to Shota begins to lose its charm as he learns more about ownership and responsibility.

This is the magic of Shoplifters, when chosen identity becomes more real than the one we were given, and when a group of unrelated strangers who live off the grid provides more stability than the traditional family. Aki’s sex work is presented without judgment; she is not tragic, she doesn’t need saving, and neither she nor her clients are shamed. The “grandmother” is treated with more dignity than if she’d been given a pension and shoved aside. The film asserts the humanity of those we might label too quickly as pariahs.

You may have seen movies with themes similar to Shoplifters, but you have not seen a movie quite like it. Anchored by masterful directing, and invigorated by terrific performances, Shoplifters is sweet, funny, insightful, intelligent, and a joy to watch. It is not to be missed.


R, 121 minutes, Violet Crown Cinema

See it again: The Wizard of Oz

PG, 110 minutes; Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, January 27

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056. 

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

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