A boy named Shota (Jyo Kairi) is taken around by Osamu (Lily Franky) on shoplifting sprees, stealing food and other necessary items. Osamu lives with his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), older woman, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki),and her grand-daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). The precise relationships between the characters are not established until much later, but the five live together as a family unit. Nobuyo works at a laundry for low pay, Hatsue lives off her pension, and Yuki makes money working at a peep show. When Osamu and Shota come across a five-year old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sleeping outside they decide to take her in. Despite initial concerns that this might be considered kidnapping, the group decide to treat her as a surrogate daughter. Yuri’s own parents are abusive and the family feel she would be safer with them. When they hear police are looking for her on the news they cut her hair and rename her Lin. As the search for the missing girl closes in, the bonds of family are sorely tested.
With films such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father,Like Son”, writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda has established himself as a master of the family drama. In “Shoplifters” he once again shows tremendous skill in creating a believable family dynamic, with the overlapping, meandering dialogue completely drawing you in to the story. The actors all give exceptional performances that further engenders a feeling of familiarity from the beginning. Particularly noteworthy are Sakura Ando, who transitions effortlessly from the hard-edged working woman to maternal compassion for Yuri,and the late Kirin Kiki, star of other Koreeda films, who plays the grandmother. Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki also do an incredible job of bringing to life the two youngest members of the family. The brilliance of Koreeda’s direction is in its subtlety. Every scene is well shot and framed but in a way that never draws attention to itself. The film draws you in so completely, that it is easy to forget that these are actors being directed, or that the camera has been set up or locations dressed. Everything is done with such apparent ease that you can almost step through the screen into the drama and forget that this is artifice and not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Early scenes of the household, piled high with the assorted flotsam of a disorderly life, are a great way of establishing the characters quickly. The film then proceeds to add detail to these sketches by showing a little of each life. Every character has their own particular problems. “Shoplifters” also uses humour amidst the bleakness of the characters situations and is not afraid of portraying morally ambiguous protagonists. This realism in style and story makes for a completely engrossing drama.
“Shoplifters” fits neatly in with recent Koreeda film in dealing with issues of family and belonging. It also raises more serious questions, as in his earlier film “Nobody Knows”, with themes of child neglect and abuse. This is tackled in a subtle way in the film and is more potent for it. The film also looks at poverty and its effects on people. All of the characters are struggling to make ends meet with poorly paid, dangerous or degrading work. It creates sympathy for the characters while highlighting the terrible reality that they face. The most pertinent and poignant question the film asks concerns the meaning of family. “Shoplifters” offers a glimmer of hope that there are people out there who are caring and compassionate, but the heart-breaking ending is a significant statement against the oftentimes harmful nature of societal convention.