Review of “Shoplifters”: Stealing hearts while picking pockets


Above, Osamu and Shota (left) in a supermarket.

Sophie Foley

Stealing can take on many different guises, and can come in many different shapes and sizes. On one hand, there are the thieves who have won over generations of hearts with their kindness and heroism. Take Robin Hood, the noble, green-clad outlaw who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, or Jean Valjean, the humble frenchman who served years upon scarring years all for a loaf of bread, which he stole in order to feed his sister’s children during the French Revolution.

Then there is the darker side of stealing: ranging from sticky-fingered pickpockets to gun-wielding bank robbers. This type of thief is more stigmatized, and is often not viewed as heroic.

The protagonists from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film, “Shoplifters,” fall into this category, though it must be said that his characters, even when portrayed stealing from the shelves of supermarkets and corner stores, could pull at the heartstrings of even the bitterest of shop owners.

The film is in Japanese, with English subtitles, and starts out with a boy, Shota, and his father, Osamu, entering a supermarket. Shota is ten years old, with a mop of black hair he wears pushed back by an elastic band. Entering the store he is wearing a backpack, and as he approaches a shelf, he takes the backpack off, opens it, and props it against his legs. Shota presses his thumbs together,  twirls his index fingers together in a small circle, then proceeds to take a bag of chips off the shelf and drop it into his backpack. The boy and his father take a few more things, stuffing them into bags and coats, and then leave.

Throughout the film, the audience watches as Shota goes through the simple hand gesture he first performed in the supermarket again and again, in a variety of stores and bodegas. It seems to be a sort of good-luck ritual, and at any rate, the gesture is a source of comfort in his already precariously-organized life.

However, this instability isn’t apparent at first. On the walk home from the supermarket, Shota and Osamu munch on warm croquettes that they buy, ironically, from a stand outside of the store they have just stolen from. As they are wandering the dark streets, talking and laughing, they see a small girl sitting outside in the cold, staring forlornly back at them as voices from inside audibly converse in heated debate. It is made clear that this is a sight Osamu and Shota have seen before, and Osamu offers her a croquette, then takes her hand and brings her along with them.

The three return to a brightly lit house, which, though packed to the gills with all manner of instant-ramen bowls, laundry, and a collection of trinkets and other household clutter, is filled with laughter and warmth. Shota joins his family sitting on the floor, eating their dinner, and the little girl, Yuri, is given a bowl of soup with little more than a few questioning looks between Osamu and Noboyu, the matriarch of the family. Aside from the inherent illegitimacy of the food they are eating, everything seems normal.

But, as the movie continues, that feeling of normalcy begins to fall apart. Despite Osamu’s requests, Shota refuses to refer to Osamu as his dad. Noboyu, Osamu’s partner, appears to be much younger than him, and makes a living at a laundromat, though before running customers’ clothes through the wash, she checks pockets and linings, and keeps the contents. Aki, granddaughter of Hatsue, who is affectionately referred to as Grandma by all, works at a sex club. She looks barely out of her teenage years, yet neither she nor Shota go to school.

The film moves slowly, and the plot line unravels bit by bit, so that the foggy period that occurs at the beginning of all films where one is not quite sure what is going on, or what the movie has in store, lasts for most of the film’s two-hour run time. At the same time, due to this the sense of security that is felt at the initial portrayal of Shota’s family, slurping ramen on the floor of their house, is preserved for much longer as well. Even when life for the family starts to crumble, there is still the feeling that everything is going to be okay, that this cobbled-together household will pull through in the end.

However, what goes around must come around. Starting with Osamu and Noboyu being laid off from their jobs within weeks of each other, and followed by Yuri, the small girl Osamu and Shota took home on that first night, then adopted into the family upon learning of the extensive abuse and neglect she suffered at the hands of her biological parents, appearing on TV with the report of a kidnapping, the movie starts to go downhill.

This movie could most reliably be described as an “arthouse” film, and it is clear that Kore-eda put great care into exhibiting smaller details, which inevitably gives it a slow pace, and would not be the ideal feature to watch if one wanted a tale of riveting adventure. Admittedly, there were times when I was watching where I was unable to stop fidgeting, impatient for the movie to continue, to understand what was going on. The plot of “Shoplifters,” moves at a pace similar to that of everyday life, and it is clear that Kore-eda was more concerned with the development of characters and setting and their contribution to the storyline, rather than the number of curveballs or plot twists which are normally numerous to keep the audience entertained.

Moreover, the story stands on its own, and, at the end of the day, the film is packed with emotion and meaning. “Shoplifters” is at times heartbreaking, often very sweet, and consistently beautifully shot and directed. It illustrates the strength of family, and especially of those chosen by and constructed by oneself.