Gentle and sensitive in its thoughtful storytelling, Japanese film “Shoplifters” is another masterful work from Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of the most humane filmmakers in our time. Calmly observing its main characters’ shabby but happy daily life, the movie generates numerous small but moving moments of understanding and empathy, and we are touched more as we come to know more about them later in the story.
The movie opens with a petty act of crime committed by Osamu (Lily Franky) and a young boy named Shota (Kairi Jō). They are in a supermarket, and we see Shota stealing several goods while Osamu watches out for any possibility of getting caught. Once their job is done, they happily go back to the shabby, modest residence of Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an old lady who has lived with them and Osamu’s spouse Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and an adolescent girl named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).
On the way to their home, Osamu and Shota spot a little young girl left outside her nearby residence due to her mother’s domestic problem. Seeing that the girl needs some help and comfort, Osamu and Shota come to bring the girl to their residence, and Hatsue and the others in the residence do not mind at all sharing their warm dinner with her.
At first, the girl, named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), is supposed to stay just for one night and then sent back to her home on the next day, but she come to stay in Hatsue’s residence, and Hatsue and the others in her residence do not object to that because Yuri does not seem to be willing to go back to her home. At one point, they notice scars on Yuri’s body, and that is more than enough for us to discern that she was not so happy at her home.
While Yuri comes to stay in Hatsue’s residence longer than expected, we watch how Hatsue and the others in her residence respectively go through their daily life. Osamu has worked as a part-time worker at a construction site, but then he happens to get injured during his working time, so he cannot work outside for a while as depending on Nobuyo to some degree. She has worked in a laundry factory, and there is a brief amusing scene which shows that she does not mind stealing just like her spouse.
In case of Aki, she has earned her money at a place where she and other girls around her age casually sell their erotic images. Never sensationalizing what Aki and her colleagues do for their customers, the movie later gives us a nice moment of intimacy between Aki and a quiet young man who happens to be her latest customer. Although they do not talk much and Aki sticks to her rules, we sense something mutual being shared between them as they quietly spend their short private time together.
We also get to know a bit about the private life of Hatsue. While receiving the monthly annuity from her diseased ex-husband, she routinely visits the son from her ex-husband’s second marriage and his wife mainly for getting some extra money, and I and other audiences around me had some laughs as watching her courteously accepting the money from him.
Meanwhile, Shota gets closer to Juri as functioning as an older brother to her. He and Osamu show her how to steal things, and Juri soon comes to participate in their criminal activities. There is a little funny scene where they steal a couple of fishing rods, and there is also a small touching scene where Shota and Juri encounter an unexpected act of kindness.
As Juri and the other main characters in the story continue to stay together, they look like a real family, and they even go to a beach together during one sunny summer day, but the movie never lets us overlook a big problem remaining in their circumstance. Not long after Juri began to stay in Hatsue’s residence, Hatsue and the others in her residence comes across a TV news report on Juri’s ‘disappearance’, and they all come to see that they are now in a very serious circumstance. Maybe they should send Juri back right now, but then they will surely be arrested for ‘kidnapping’ her.
Of course, the situation eventually becomes more serious for them after a couple of certain incidents happen later in the story, but the movie sticks to its low-key mood as before, and that leads to several quiet but powerful moments to remember. In the end, we come to realize how much the main characters have stuck together with love and care, and that is why the last scene of the movie feels particularly poignant.
Under Kore-eda’s deft direction, the main performers in the film give natural nuanced performances. While Lily Franky, who was wonderful in Kore-eda’s previous film “Like Father, Like Son” (2013), and Kiki Kirin, who appeared in Kore-eda’s several notable works including “After the Storm” (2016), are the most notable ones in the bunch, Sakura Ando and Mayu Matsuoka are also solid in their respective roles, and the same thing can be said about Kairi Jō and Mayu Matsuoka, who are effortless in their unadulterated acting.
Since he made his first feature film “Maborosi” (1995), Kore-eda has never disappointed us during last 23 years except a few minor missteps like “The Third Murder” (2017), and “Shoplifters”, which received the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival in this May, shows him at the top of his mastery. After making “After the Storm”, he said he considered having some rest, but then he kept going on instead, and I certainly hope that he will continue to impress and touch us a lot as before.