The Oscar-nominated Shoplifters is coming for your head and heart

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre

February 15–17

No contemporary Japanese filmmaker explores family more deeply than Hirokazu Koreeda. In Like Father, Like Son, he uses the “switched at birth” trope to investigate what happens if you could choose your children. In Our Little Sister, three siblings develop a tight bond with their 13-year old half-sister, despite sharing a scoundrel father.

Shoplifters is Koreeda’s most complex effort to date. It challenges the idea blood ties and family have anything to do with each other.

The Shibatas live on the edge of society. They work odd jobs and steal to supplement their meagre income. They’re crammed into grandma’s tiny house, surrounded by clutter and knick-knacks, and reasonably happy.

One night after a day of shoplifting and gluten ingestion, Osamu and his son Shota meet Yuri, a cold, locked out and malnourished five-year-old. They bring her home and, upon discovering she has been abused, choose to keep her.

The decision upends the family’s dynamics — maternal instincts and sibling rivalry flare up — but there’s no question the little girl is better off with this gang of small-time crooks than her vicious biological parents.

This isn’t a feel-good movie and you shouldn’t expect a Hollywood ending. Koreeda is a realist. Three-quarters of Shoplifters depicts how the Shibatas stay afloat. Each member of the family spends the day hustling or looking for an angle. They don’t necessarily like it, but they need to do it.

I’d rather not spoil the film’s last 40 minutes but it’s hardly a surprise when the whole enterprise comes crashing down (I’ll say this: living off your ramen-stealing skills isn’t sustainable). The Shibatas’ situation’s rapidly increasing precariousness is painful to watch, but so is the extent of the family’s wrongdoings. It gets dark real fast and the fact the characters’ keep their humanity is salt to the wound.

Shoplifters shines attention on two phenomena eroding Japan’s social foundation: underemployment and gentrification. Most people have jobs, but they’re menial and low-paying. Like in most developed countries, the impoverished population is getting pushed to the outskirts because it’s hard to afford living in the city.

Shoplifters is a well-rounded experience and it shouldn’t be missed, downer or not.