Often compared in his distinctly Japanese minimalism to legendary compatriot Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda is a filmmaker whose graceful yet unfussy style contrasts with the knotty themes he has made it his trademark to tackle.
Kore-eda’s films are dedicated to the dilemmas and tragedies of family life, from the loss of a child (Still Walking) or a treasured pet (I Wish) to the less commonplace mix-up of children at birth. Shoplifters, the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, continues his exploration of those themes, albeit outside of the traditional middle-class milieu Kore-eda usually anchors his films in. Instead the story unfolds within the Shibata family, a clan of (non-violent) small-time crooks and hustlers sharing a roof illegally with grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) in a tiny, cramped apartment.
On their way home from a routine supermarket raid, chief thief Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) encounter a little girl (Miyu Sasaki) – no older than four or five – cowering outside her apartment in the cold. After overhearing from outside a vicious argument between her parents, as well as noticing scars on her arms, they conclude that she is a victim of abuse and decide to keep her for the time being.
The girl, whose name is Juri (although the family mistake it for Yuri until seeing a report about her disappearance on the evening news), arouses the sympathies of the entire family, particularly doting Hatsue. For Juri’s part, after understandably nervous beginnings she responds favourably to receiving love, care and attention for the first time in her life, and soon any memories of her former parents appear to be long gone, with a new name and haircut symbolising her rebirth. Similarly, any plans among the “kidnappers” to return Juri to her real parents quickly dissipate.
The brilliance of Shoplifters ultimately resides in Kore-eda’s ability to make it seem the most natural thing in the world that a child would be better off kidnapped by thieves than with her own parents. Kore-eda’s warm and naturalistic aesthetic style, which revels in capturing the magic of everyday activities like sharing a meal, watching fireworks or listening to the patter of rain, bonds us to the Shibatas before we even have time to question the morality of what they do.
Later on in the film, when the police intervene and the illegality of the kidnapping is pronounced, one nonetheless finds oneself questioning the legitimacy of the law above anything else. This isn’t to say that Juri’s adopted family are a paragon of virtue; far from it. They not only steal from faceless supermarkets, but also from family stores and people’s cars – breaking their windows to do so – and betray each other in various ways. But what Kore-eda wants to convey to his audience is that good and bad are never absolute, and that good and bad themselves have a reality above and beyond that of man-made laws.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka