From one of the current masters of Japanese cinema, Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows; Like Father, Like Son; Our Little Sister; After the Storm), Shoplifters tells the story of a group of petty criminals who bring a little girl they name Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) into their makeshift family dynamic after finding her on the streets, hiding from her abusive and neglectful parents. The girl is discovered by patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) and “son” Shota (Jyo Kairi), who are fresh from a successful shoplifting spree at a local grocery story. Reluctant to do anything more for Yuri than give her a meal and send her on her way, Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) sees a bit of her own story in this girl’s scars and bruises, deciding to make Yuri the new daughter of the family.
The truth is that none of these people are actually related to each other. Each stays in this tiny home courtesy of a grandmother figure (Kirin Kiki, giving her last on-screen performance before her recent death) whose pension checks finance a great deal of what goes on within the group. Her favorite seems to be the elder daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works as a peep show girl and is the only person in the family that makes her money doing something legal. Despite being petty criminals, the group really does seem to care for each other, and Yuri is embraced while also being taught early lessons about being a part of the shoplifting ring.
Winner of the Palme D’Or Winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is an essential story about the option to choose your family. This is a happy group that looks out for each other, even when there’s a risk of getting caught, like when Yuri is discovered missing and her story is on every local news channel. Kore-eda’s film (which he also wrote and edited) takes a hard look at poverty in a big Japanese city, labor conditions, and the flaws and loopholes in the child welfare system, making it a rare criticism of portions of Japanese culture while effortlessly maintaining a grasp on the true emotional weight of these family-like relationships.
As much as it isn’t legally right for the group to take in Yuri (it is kidnapping, even if the girl would rather be with them), we’re still rooting for the group dynamic to remain intact for the sake of all involved. Shoplifters takes what many would consider an ugly existence and makes it a thing of beauty in so many ways. Franky and Ando’s performances here are absolutely flawless, especially when they find ways to remember how and why they were brought together in the first place. The child actors are heartbreakingly lovely as they discuss their lives right out of Oliver Twist before being brought into this family. Personal secrets are revealed, tough decisions are made and dreams about the future of this close-knit group are dared to be dreamed, even though it seems inevitable that they will be caught.
There isn’t a false note to be found here, from the interpersonal moments to the bigger-picture social commentary that is woven throughout. Not every character’s journey ends as well as others, and some may be bothered that the ending isn’t more promising or hopeful. But lives like these seldom have that kind of guarantee. This is a harrowing, elegant and graceful piece of art that is easily one of the best offerings of the year. Keep a close eye out for this one wherever you are.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
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