Shoplifters” is a complex, ambitious film that because of some curious story choices ends up being equal parts compelling and frustrating. The film, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (The Third Murder) excels in its humanistic depiction of life. The study of how these characters bond as a family, making interpersonal connections through shared experiences of joy and suffering is relatable and heartbreaking. However, the odd reveal of the characters history together undermines the empathy the film spends so much time building up.

            “Shoplifters” begins with Osamu, and his ‘son’, Shota, going through a practiced routine of relieving the local grocery store of some items. On their way home, they pass a five year old girl, Yuri, alone in the cold night on her front porch. They bring her back to their home for dinner and to warm her up which is where we meet the other members of this makeshift family. Nobuyo, Osamu’s wife who works for a laundry service, Hatsue, the ‘Grandma’ who owns the house, refuses to sell it to developers and lives off her dead husband’s pension, and Aki, a young woman who we believe is a sister works at a hostess service. We see and feel that this ragtag group has come together for survival, scraping and sharing what they earn and steal to help each other out. Even though this meager existence doesn’t appear ideal (Shuto’s room is a sliding cabinet reminiscent of Harry Potter’s cupboard), the family shows some true compassion and kindness to each other and little Yuri. At the end of the evening, as Osamu and Nobuyo are bringing Yuri back home, they overhear an argument between her parents in which they both say neither of them ever wanted a child. Instead of abandoning this little soul to a life of neglect and rejection, they decide to keep Yuri as a part of their family.

            It is from that foundation that “Shoplifters” delves into a myriad of plotlines and themes about the meaning of family, change, identity, growth and making choices. And those are just the main themes. The film also touches on concepts of capitalism, poverty, inequity, sexuality, with guilt and redemption to various degrees, which is a lot for one film to handle. These themes come up as we follow the family over the next few months, as Nobuyo and Osamu lose their source of income, little Yuri begins to participate in the shoplifting exploits, and Shota begins to feel jealousy over his new ‘sister’. However, through all these struggles the family copes, forging bonds by sticking together through these experiences, and gaining sympathy from the audience in the process.

            This is also how the film illustrates one of its main points, which is the question of what actually makes a family? Does giving birth automatically make you a [good] parent? Or does showing care and concern for another living, breathing person, sacrificing some of what you have to make the other person feel valued and loved, create those family bonds? “Shoplifters” tries very hard to prove it’s the latter, and succeeds in making a strong argument that it’s at least partially true. For example, the family’s trip to the beach, reveling in the simple joy of having the tide come up and wet your feet, or when they scrunch and huddle together on the patio trying to see fireworks through their little patch of open sky; it’s these unique memories that create those family bonds – as you’ve shared them with no one else.

            However, along the way, we are shown that cracks in those bonds can happen, and that this family is maybe not as authentic as we’ve seen so far. Osamu steals from customer’s pockets. Aki uses her sister’s name at work. There is only supposed to be one resident in the apartment. Not only does Grandma steal Pachinko balls from the person next to her, but she gifts money from her husband’s son from his second marriage. Child services finally discovers that Yuri has been missing for two months, and that her name is actually Juri. So instead of coming forward, they cut Yuri’s hair and give her a new name – Lin. This scene is actually quite significant, because it shows how all the characters are struggling with discovering their true identity. And this is also what leads into some of the more frustrating parts of the movie, as we start to learn more and more of the backstory for each of the ‘shoplifters’. Until this point, it’s been easy to sympathize with these characters. Then we are presented with them as unreliable narrators, so their circumstances become less the result of society’s inequality and more a result of their own questionable choices and personal motivations. This really lessens the film’s impact because it muddies the theme that having a supportive family, whatever form that takes, as a good thing. Also, these life-altering events that led them to those decisions are explained and dealt with so nonchalantly that it diminishes their importance to each character as well.

            Instead of showing us characters going through a journey of change, Kore-eda decided to show us the possibility of change and growth. This is symbolized no better than in the scene where Yuri/Lin calls out to her “brother” (which she actually says) because she has found a cicada that has left the ground and is crawling up a tree, getting ready to shed its outer shell and unveil its wings. The characters in ‘Shoplifters’ feel stuck in that state for much of the film.

However, the fact that the audience feels so much emotion towards the characters, in particular Yuri and Shota, shows how well the movie works on those points. The final act gives Shota the strength to question what he has been brought up to believe, resisting the pressure to steal from parked cars and not wanting Yuri to help with the shoplifting. Yuri displays some of the same strength, refusing to listen to her mother when she insists she says sorry for touching the bruise on her face, or on the promise of a new dress which later leads to an instance of abuse. Each of them accept their past but choose to look forward to better circumstances. Just as Yuri stands on a table to look out over the top of the balcony that she was hiding behind at the beginning, “Shoplifters” shows us that we all have to learn to take the good with the bad, but that we can make choices to accept or change who we are.

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