The Oscar-nominated Shoplifters is coming for your head and heart

Film review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Friday 1

Roxy Theatre
4 out of 5

No contemporary Japanese filmmaker explores family ties more deeply than Hirokazu Koreeda. In Like Father, Like Son, he uses the “switched at birth” trope to investigate what happens if you could choose your children. In Our Little Sister, three siblings develop a tight bond with their 13-year old half-sister, despite sharing a scoundrel father.

Shoplifters is Koreeda’s most complex effort to date. It  challenges the idea that blood ties and family have anything to do with each other.

The Shibatas live on the edge of society. They work odd jobs and steal to supplement their meager income. They’re crammed into grandma’s tiny house, surrounded by clutter and knick-knacks, and reasonably happy.

One night after a day of shoplifting and gluten ingestion, Osamu and his son Shota meet Yuri, a malnourished five-year-old locked out in the cold. They bring her home and, upon discovering she has been abused, choose to keep her. The decision upends the family’s internal dynamics — maternal instincts and sibling rivalry flare up — but there’s no question the little girl is better off with this gang of small-time crooks than with her vicious biological parents.

This isn’t a feel-good movie and you shouldn’t expect a Hollywood ending. No matter how contrived his premise, Koreeda is a realist. Three-quarters of Shoplifters is dedicated to how the Shibatas stay afloat. Each member of the family spends the day hustling or looking for an angle. They don’t necessarily like it, but they need to do it.

I’d rather not spoil the film’s last 40 minutes but it’s hardly a surprise when the whole enterprise comes crashing down (living off your ramen-stealing skills isn’t sustainable). The Shibatas’ situation’s rapidly increasing precariousness is painful to watch but so is the extent of the family’s wrongdoings. It gets dark real fast and the fact the characters’ keep their humanity is salt to the wound.

Shoplifters shines attention on two phenomena eroding Japan’s social foundation: underemployment and gentrification. Most people have jobs, but they’re menial and low-paying. Like in most developed countries, the impoverished population is getting pushed to the outskirts and it’s increasingly hard to afford living in the city.

Shoplifters is a well-rounded experience and it shouldn’t be missed.