A Funny Kind of Family: Shoplifters


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Please note that this article contains spoilers. 

What does the Fast and Furious franchise have in common with the work of Hirokazu Kore-eda? They’re both obsessed with family.

In Vin Diesel’s high-speed world, this generally means restating over and over again that they are, in fact, a family. In its own admirably daft way, it earns the theme just through sheer persistence and the camaraderie as they attempt their latest stunt. 

For Kore-eda, it’s a much thornier issue, but one that he’s been wrestling with for much of his career. Like with the Fast and Furious, it’s as much about the families you choose as the ones you’re born into. Unlike the multi-billion dollar franchise, however, exploring what it means to be family involves more than just mumbling it repeatedly over several films. It’s a tough topic with no easy answers or clear definitions. The conclusion, often, is that being a family – whether you’ve chosen it or not – is hard work.

In films such as I Wish and Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda explored mismatched families and how emotional bonds can sometimes surpass biological ones. Indiewire critic David Ehrlich talks of the “emotional logic” in his films that “things (and people) should belong to whomever loves them the most.”1 Brothers separated by divorce travel across the country to maintain their friendship. Fathers choose between shared history or shared DNA with their sons, who got swapped in the hospital. The ties that bind families, it seems, go much deeper than biology.

Shoplifters shows a funny kind of family. It opens with a beautiful tracking shot through a supermarket as a father and son, Osamu and Shota, team up to steal food. “While it’s in the shop, it doesn’t belong to anyone” goes the justification later on in the film. They bring the spoils back and on the way they encounter a small girl by herself, playing in some rubbish. She’s clearly scared and neglected, so they bring her home for food and company. Before long, she’s joined the family. This ragtag group includes the father and son we’ve already met, Nobuyo the mum, a young woman named Aki and an old lady mostly referred to as Grandma. How, or even if, they’re all actually related remains unclear. Whether it matters is equally ambiguous. 

Even as the film shifts gear in the final act – which I won’t spoil here – Kore-eda’s question remains the same. What makes this disparate group of people a family? Part of the answer is simply proximity. The director’s camera shows the clutter and claustrophobia of poverty, filling the frame (and the flat) with the ephemera of six different lives. All space is shared, forcing everyone to be intimately involved with each other. This uneasily shared existence makes the familial bonds almost a by-product of their cramped living situation. 

It goes beyond that, though. It’s also about the compassion and care they show towards one another. By bringing in young Juri to their already strained family, the Shibatas choose kindness over their own needs. The Variety review of the film picked up on this key dynamic: “There is much giving in this ersatz family: Granny always shares her food as treats, and Nobuyo gives Rin a swimsuit which she loves so much she takes her baths in it. And most moving of all, each is willing to make a sacrifice for the other without hesitation.”2 You don’t hear the phrase “I love you” or even “we’re a family” uttered during Shoplifters, but it’s regularly shown through the actions of its protagonists.

The flipside of this is the failure of biological family. Grandma’s late husband was seemingly a philanderer. Nobuyo’s was violent. Juri’s real parents are neglectful and abusive. It’s background details like this which make the ethically hazy decision to “adopt” Juri even more challenging. Kore-eda teases out your sympathy for the main characters, daring you to love them even when more of their questionable actions unfurl as the film progresses. Young Shota’s growing unease with shoplifting and their way of life is a mirror to the audience’s, but so is his continued affection for this unusual group of people.

The care that this mishmash of a family show to one another is surpassed by the care shown by Kore-eda himself. His lens doesn’t judge the people, it just watches like a concerned, seventh member of the family. There’s a shot towards the end of the film where Nobuyo’s face is centrally framed and she’s looking almost directly into the camera. It’s not exposing or cold though, it’s the kind of shot designed to elicit the strongest empathetic reaction possible. We see her face as she processes a thousand different complex emotions and we’re invited to experience them ourselves. Kore-eda’s compassion is the hallmark of much of his work and it’s at its richest here in Shoplifters

The concept of “found family” is increasingly prevalent in pop culture, that is, the families we choose in place of the ones we don’t. We see it in superhero team-ups, in car racing gangs, in lazy musical biopics. Cinema is trying to wrestle with what real family looks like and how bonds are forged between disparate, difficult people. People are messy, which makes family messier, and few are as chaotic as the family in Shoplifters. Kore-eda suggests that the solution lies in compassion, grace and sacrifice. 

Nathanael Smith
Freelance film critic

November 2018


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