Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, spends much of its screen time inside a cramped Tokyo hovel where three generations of castoffs and grifters–headed by a matriarch known only as Grandma (the great Kirin Kiki)–carve a precarious existence out of shoplifting, menial labor, and minor pilfering. Not so minor. Early in the film they pilfer–or if you ask them, rescue–a battered young girl found cowering in the cold. And baby makes six. Running around town with her new brother Shota as other children go dutifully to school, young Ren quickly learns the family trade. Strangers believe the characters are brother and sister, parent and child, father and mother, but as the film progresses, we learn that these relationships are bound by forces more mysterious than blood.
Since 1995’s Marborosi, Kore-eda has wrung drama both gentle and devastating from his investigations into the family. In Like Father, Like Son and Little Sister, characters extend tentative welcomes to newly discovered members of the family tree. In Still Walking and After the Storm, adult men come home to grapple with the expectations they never outgrew. The separated brothers of I Wish, the most lighthearted of his family dramas, long for divine intervention to reunite their split family. Kore-eda’s characters know that familial love is no mere sentiment, but a careful bargain to be entered into, at one’s peril. In Nobody Knows, a mother, before abandoning her three young children, asks, “Am I not allowed to be happy?”
Though he is often compared to Ozu, Kore-eda’s contemporary is Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, who also makes intimate family dramas that comment on broader cultural forces. Shoplifters is set in a modern Japan where crumbling multi-generational family units have created an epidemic of loneliness and poverty among the elderly. But unlike Farhadi, whose films tighten their moral noose around his increasingly trapped characters, Kore-eda’s films build by accumulating details and moments. (Moment in which, as Anne Tyler once said, nothing seems to be happening but, in fact, everything is happening.) If Farhadi is a puppetmaster, Kore-eda is an observer, a poet of daily life, whose art is one of accretion, not acceleration. The central hour of Shoplifters unfolds sweetly, lyrically, as love, recognition and necessity weave a ramshackle charade into a real family.
“It’s not going to last long,” the grandmother says. “I know that.”
One of the pleasures of Kore-eda’s films is his love of faces. What faces they are here. As the pre-adolescent Shota, Jyo Kairi is weary and watchful as a young Jodie Foster. The even younger Miyu Sasaki tells the entire story with the slow unguarding of her elvin face. And Ando Sakura, as the stalwart mother, holds the camera with a face both wide open and impenetrable; it flushes with emotion even as it drains into cold calculation.
But the film’s most beautifully held face is that of Kirin Kiki. Drastically aged and weakened since her gossipy, dry-witted turn in After the Storm just a year earlier, Kiki’s sunken eyes nevertheless retain a sparkle of mischief–look at that toothless grin she flashes after stealing chips at the pachinko parlor. As the family frolics at the shore during a day at the beach, Kiki, sprinkling sand on her age-spotted legs, watches them with unspeakable tenderness. She knows, in that moment, the central thesis of all Kore-eda’s films: that ordinary life is a miracle. Thank you, she mouths silently. Thank you.
This, her final shot in the film, would be her final moment on film. The veteran actress and Kore-eda muse died in late 2018, leaving behind three biting, careworn, and aggrieved performances in three of the director’s best works.
In Shoplifters startling third act, the veil over each character’s history is ripped clear. But no fact, no official inquiry, can explain the mystery of their bond. They can’t even explain it to themselves.
A work of deep humanity. You walk away breathless.