Cannes favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the Croisette for the seventh time with Shoplifters, a quietly devastating portrayal of family and theft in contemporary Japan, and one of his best works of recent years.
The survival of families has been a constant concern for Kore-eda. Whether it’s the abandoned children of Nobody Knows, the generational shifts of Still Walking, or the jarring mixup of Like Father, Like Son, family is an emotive and fragile concept, vulnerable to the vagaries of economic hardship and social change. His latest film sees his focus as sharp as ever and his touch light but at the same time utterly profound.
A young boy Shota (Jyo Kairi) accompanies his father Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) on a trip to the supermarket. With a series of diversions and hand signals, dad distracts the store staff or blocks their view while Shota gets the week’s shopping into his school bag. “I forgot the shampoo,” Shota says, but they’ll get it another day. It’s too cold to go back. It’s also too cold for a little girl (Miyu Sasaki) out on her balcony as her mother and father fight inside. Osamu takes pity on her and gives her some food and then takes her home. Here, she is accepted as his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) discovers signs of abuse, and having stayed a few days the girl is renamed Rin. The subject of it potentially being a kidnapping comes up, but Osamu is fairly certain it can’t be a kidnapping if they haven’t asked for a ransom.
Rin joins a family that also includes teenager Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works at a peep show, and a grandma (Kirin Kiki). Their apartment is almost baroque in its clutter and cramped confusion. Although Osamu and Nobuyo both have half-hearted jobs, the main income derives from a series of scams. Everyone’s in on it. Even grandma is claiming her dead husband’s pension, stealing from the slot machines and sponging off her dead husband’s son from another marriage. Shota and Osamu soon introduce Rin into their stealing ways as news of a child’s abduction does the rounds and forces a quick haircut. The Shibatas fit into a long tradition of familial skullduggery familiar from British television: see Bread, Only Fools and Horses and Shameless.
Here, the twist is how much the family is in the usual sense of the word a family. It emerges that none of the relationships are what they appear and the ‘family’ is in fact a self-serving fiction, which can develop affection but whose real purpose is survival. But, then again, isn’t that just what a family is anyway? Kore-eda explores these questions with a slow, deliberate and damned near-perfect film. Without any showiness, cinematographer Ryuto Kondother frames shots of heartbreaking beauty such as Rin’s foot curling around a chair leg as she has her hair cut or the family gathering to look up at fireworks they can only hear.
The performances are peerless, with Lily Franky again exceptional as the ne’er-do-well father figure whose Fagan-esque tutelage seems inspired as much by childish exuberance as criminal inclinations. Stealing is fun. Sakura Ando, as his life partner, suggests a deeper more moral person: someone who knows she is wrong and tragically understands that a deserved emotional reckoning is coming. The children – as ever – provide such naturalistic performances, the word doesn’t even apply.
Seasons pass as they do in Kore-eda films – and in life. The cold realities of Japanese society are alluded to – the shift work and exploitation at the bottom of the ladder, the abuse of children by the traditional family, ignored by an indifferent society – but Kore-eda as much as his anti-heroes seems intent on providing a fictional space, a place of potential safety and respite. It’s a beautiful fantasy, but one that he is brave enough to concede can only ever be temporary.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty