'Shoplifters' ('Manbiki Kazoku'): Film Review | Cannes 2018

A bittersweet fable about double-faced Japanese society.

A ragtag family of petty thieves provides an affectionate home for an abused little girl in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family drama.

Throughout his career, filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu has worried family relationships like a bone (particularly the father-son bond), as though they held the key to deciphering the soul of Japanese society. And perhaps they do. In Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, literally "Shoplifting Family") he contrasts the frigid emotions of socially correct behavior with the warmth and happiness of a dishonest lower-class family, where money is tight and all methods of obtaining it are permissible, including teaching the kids to steal.

This small film is a thoughtful addition to his parables about happy and unhappy families (Nobody Knows, After the Storm), studded with memorable characters and believable performances that quietly lead the viewer to reflect on societal values. Who better than Kore-eda, a director who whispers instead of shouts, is able to capture contradictions and issues though such a subtle, unforced style of storytelling? Though the film's slow, measured pace is sometimes off-putting, this Wild Bunch release should steal some hearts beyond the director's loyal following, particularly with festival support.

The story of the makeshift family that has collected around Osamu Shibata (a happy-go-lucky Lily Franky) begins on a cold winter night. Osamu and his young son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), have been out shoplifting at a grocery store in a residential area when they stumble across a 4-year-old girl freezing on a balcony. Osamu’s big heart goes out to the grave tyke – so will the audience's — and he brings her home for a hot meal.

His wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura, 100 Yen Love), doesn’t want to get involved or add another mouth to feed to their poverty-stricken home, where they squeak by on Granny's pension, her modest salary and Osamu's occasional hardhat jobs. But when she sees burn marks on the little girl's arm, she changes her mind and lets her stay as an adopted member of the family.

No one raises the question of kidnapping (though, of course, that’s what it is), and little Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) seems the happiest of all with the arrangement. She quickly bonds with Shota. Nobuyo begins to feel motherly toward her, and the wise grandma (Kiki Kilin) takes a shine to the girl as well. So does the sunny older sister, Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works behind a one-way mirror in a strip club.

In fact, everyone is happy in the cramped, old-fashioned house surrounded by anonymous apartment buildings. Franky, playing the father with unselfconscious charm, is contagiously cheerful and carefree. But a subtle tension grows as the scenes unfold and the police become aware of Yuri's disappearance. Instead of giving her back, the family naively cuts her hair to disguise her and renames her Rin.

The other big question mark is how the members of the family are really related to one another, other than through their lives of petty crime. Osamu finds it very important for Shota to call him Dad, but the otherwise docile boy can't bring himself to do it. Aki, who for some reason goes by the name of her never-seen sister Sayaka, is deeply attached to Granny but has a more formal relationship with her supposed parents, Osamu and Nobuyo. These and other mysteries are explosively revealed in the last half-hour of the film, which is one big revelation scene with multiple endings and emotional wrap-ups. 

Like the director's 2004 Nobody Knows, in which four kids are left to fend for themselves in a small apartment, the story of Shoplifters was inspired by a local news story. Kore-eda's clean, effortless direction and extremely natural performances underline the gritty realism of being a social outcast. The paradox is that despite the sordid motives behind many of their actions — they are happy to acquire money by any means possible, including shoplifting, robbery, cheating the pension fund, extorting cash from distant relatives and plain fraud — they create a happier, saner home life for Yuri than her unloving, law-abiding and violent parents do.

Though Kore-eda withholds easy sentiment, it bursts out of certain scenes. One very wrenching moment is when Matsuoka’s Aki persuades her favorite client, Mr. 4, to meet in a private room where they can talk, not realizing the young man is mute. No matter: her intuition and sensitivity connect with his pain.

Fine actress Ando Sakura is a perfect fit in the role of Osamu’s down-to-earth wife, culminating in a breathtaking seduction scene between the two, which she leads. As the wily grandmother who has some games going herself, Kiki Kilin is a vivid presence on whom the plot eventually turns.

Working for the first time with cinematographer Kondo Ryuto, Kore-eda creates a much warmer and often frankly messy look than the stiff formality of his previous feature, The Third Murder. Everything is a contrast, of course, like the neat and tidy streets lined with whitewashed buildings versus the lush vegetation overtaking the family garden. Composer Hosono Haruomi’s score gives scenes a bubbling, almost childlike feeling.

Production company: Aoi Pro. Inc.
Cast: Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin, Jyo Kairi, Sasaki Miyu 
Director-screenwriter-editor: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Producers: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Yose Akihiko, Taguchi Hijiri
Executive producers: Ishihara Takashi, Tom Yoda, Nakae Yasuhito
Director of photography: Kondo Ryuto
Production designer: Mitsumatsu Keiko
Costume designer: Kurosawa Kazuko
Music: Hosono Haruomi
Casting: Tabata Toshie
World sales: Wild Bunch, Gaga (for Asia)
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
122 minutes