Movie Review: Shoplifters (2018)
A middle-aged couple who committed murder hole up in the tiny, shack-like home of an elderly Japanese woman, who lives there with her granddaughter—a sex parlor worker. The couple is also raising a young boy whom they kidnapped from a pachinko parlor and taught how to shoplift. Returning from a shoplifting escapade, they spy a four-year-old girl on a balcony and take her home as well. When the old woman dies, the couple buries her body inside the home and take all of her money.
They’re the good guys.
Most of the above is learned at the 11th hour, or by and by. We begin thinking the couple is the parents of the boy, and one of them is the child of the matriarch. We begin thinking they’re a family. Which they are. That’s writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s point. At least that’s how he began the movie—with the question, “What makes a family?” He decided it wasn’t blood.
Question: Does he rig the game?
The couple is big-hearted in a cold-hearted world. They keep the girl because she was being abused. They found the boy abandoned in a car. The “father,” Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), taught him shoplifting, he later tells the cops, because it’s the only thing he knew how to teach him. He says this haplessly, but without pity or ego. There’s a recognition in his eyes that it all went wrong, that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but what are you going to do?
There’s nothing venal about them is my point, and they have an upfront honesty that most families don’t have. The boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), is acting distant, and Osamu surmises why. At the ocean, in the waves, he talks to him about boobs and morning boners and desires. He tells him he’s not abnormal for these urges but at one with the world. “Everybody likes boobs,” he says. The “mother,” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), compares the girl’s scar, where her biological mother burned her with an iron, to her own near identical scar from a work accident. “We’ve been chosen, haven’t we?” she says. It’s a bonding moment.
Kore-eda keeps giving us these moments. They’re precious without being precious. Shota, upset about the addition of the girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), or maybe because he’s asked to think of her as a sister, and to train her in shoplifting techniques, doesn’t come home. Osamu surmises he’s in a nearby abandoned car. He goes there, sits in the car with Shota, talks to him, talks him into going back home. There’s nothing haranguing about it. It’s gentle. It reminded me of a moment, when I was a child and threw a temper tantrum at my grandparent’s house and locked myself in the car outside. Eventually my grandfather came and got me. By then I was depleted. I went willingly, happily. I was so happy to see him.
When the family is finally caught, and wind up before the authorities and the press, everything gets twisted.
Another question: Why does Shota do it? They get caught because Shota gets caught for shoplifting, and at the end of the movie he tells Osamu he got caught on purpose. Which we know. We see it happening. He abandons the technique he’d been taught, and which didn’t work as well as Osamu thought. (The local grocer, for example, knows the kid is shoplifting—another poignant, charming scene.) But why does Shota do it? To momentarily protect Yuri, who is trying to shoplift too? Or to protect her on a larger scale? To get her away from Osamu and Nobuyo and the cramped, big-hearted life they live with its petty crimes?
Also, why tell Osamu at the end? What is he telling him? That he did it on purpose to end a lifestyle that wasn’t sustainable? Or is he saying: I didn’t really fail. Your techniques are still good. I’m still a good shoplifter.
The kids are beyond cute. Is that rigging the game, too? Shota is so pretty he looks like a girl—the way that a teenage Joaquin Phoenix looked like a girl in “Parenthood,” or the middle Hanson brother in the “MMMBop” video. Yuri, meanwhile, is so quiet and vulnerable that when she finally smiles it lights up the world. Just the way she moves, my wife said, broke her heart.
The standout for me is Ando as the mother, Nobuyo, who is tougher than her husband. She’s the one who takes the rap for the crime of kidnapping Yuri away from abusive parents. Ando reveals complicated depths with a glance, an intonation, a shrug. She deals with the pettiness of humanity—as at work, with bosses or colleagues—with a knowing, amused smile. It’s not saddened or bowed; it’s almost triumphant. It’s like she’s thinking, “I knew you were going to be that small.” She knows how the game is really rigged.
When the cops accuse her of simply “throwing away” the matriarch by burying her, she looks them in the eye, directly, but without heat. “I found her,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It was someone else who threw her away.”
I could watch this movie again just for Ando; just for moments like that.