Critics love this movie, but American moviegoers seem a bit put off by its title and the premise that poverty forces people to steal in order to survive. In fact, “Shoplifters” tells the story of a loving family.
The movie opens as might be expected, with father Osamu (Lily Franky) and son Shota (Jyo Kairi) executing a well-practiced shoplifting expedition to gather food for the family dinner, which is shared in their tiny quarters (even by Japanese standards) with Osamu’s wife, a grandmother and her younger daughter.
Osamu’s rationale is that the items on store shelves simply have not yet found homes.
In a similar way, when Osamu finds a little girl shivering outside in the cold, he takes her to his home. When it is established that the girl is unwanted and that she has been abused physically, the Shibatas rationalize that they have not kidnapped her — no ransom request, after all — and adopt her informally into their family.
The Shibatas work at low-paying jobs and live at the margins in a rich country but seem untroubled by this. If they are poor, well, their family life is rich in love. They treasure their children and treat the grandmother with great respect.
Hints are dropped for three-quarters of the movie. A mother tells her daughter, “I chose you.” The daughter works as some kind of peep show attraction, offering comfort if not sex to lonely young men. The grandmother visits an apparently unrelated middle-aged couple and expects them to give her money.
After about an hour and a half of halcyon domesticity, three events pull the edifice down, and the audience is left wondering about the meaning of family.
Critics see this movie as a critique of financial inequality in Japan, but my impression is that director Hirokazu Kore-eda is playing a longer game here.
In fact, Japanese family life is in decline. The proportion of children to adults has slid for 37 years now, longer than in any other developed country. More than 40 percent of adults under the age of 35 are virgins, and while most of them report that they plan to marry “someday,” they also say their economic prospects are not good enough to do so yet. The very traditional culture prizes job security but is generating more part-time or off-on jobs that render men as unsuitable marriage partners. There is a curious trend of “maid cafes” where young men go to see young women dressed in housemaid costumes and acting deferentially — like housemaids. The increase in the elder population is being addressed by robots that provide nursing home care.
It may sound trite, but at its core, “Shoplifting” asserts that loyalty and family love are more essential than economic security. That this needs saying is what is remarkable about the film.