Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Photo: GAGA Pictures

#AsianWin ‘Shoplifters’ by Hirokazu Kore-eda challenges conventional ideas about family and bonds

by Neil Bui

Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the internationally recognized Cannes Film Festival, last year. Through this film, Kore-eda continues to explore the theme of untraditional families, their structures, and the bonds that unite them. Past works by him that examine these ideas through visual storytelling include Nobody Knows (based on the 1988 Sugamo child abandonment case), Still Walking (highlights the life of a family on the anniversary of the eldest son’s death), and Like Father, Like Son (a switch-at-birth story).

Synposis of Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda: On the margins of Tokyo, a dysfunctional band of outsiders is united by fierce loyalty, a penchant for petty theft and playful grifting. When the young son is arrested, secrets are exposed that upend their tenuous, below-the-radar existence and test their quietly radical belief that it is love—not blood—that defines a family.

[SPOILERS BELOW]

The film opens up with a father and son, Osamu and Shota, (played by Lily Franky and Kairi Jō respectively) working together to successfully shoplift from a grocery school. On the way home, the pair come across a little girl (played by Miyu Sasaki). She’s silent and completely alone in front of her home but soon warms up to the father and son enough to go with them.

During dinner, we meet the last 3 main characters of Shoplifters:

  • Hatsue – an elderly woman who owns the small home they all live in, played by Kirin Kiki
  • Nobuya – Osamu’s partner Nobuya, played by Sakura Ando
  • Aki – a young woman closest to Hatsue, played by Mayu Matsuoka

Lily Franky has collaborated with Hirokazu Kore-eda in the past on Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, and After the Storm. Kirin Kiki in those 3 mentioned films, as well as Still Walking and I Wish.

The adults discuss the little girl and how Osamu basically kidnapped her, but he insists that he will be taking her back home after dinner. The family notices the scars covering the little girl’s body and suspect abuse but reluctantly says that they cannot get themselves involved. When the Osamu and Nobuya attempt to bring the little girl home, they discover her parents shouting and fighting, as well as overhearing both parents expressing how greatly they don’t even want their daughter. Our protagonists can tell that the little girl certainly won’t be missed and they don’t have to worry about the parents reporting her disappearance. The main characters know that they could provide her a better loving home.

Towards the end of the film, when Nobuya is interrogated by detectives about the kidnapping, she corrects them by saying “no, someone else threw her away and I found her.”

[SPOILERS END]

It is moments like these, expressed through simple yet powerful dialogue as well as the familial interactions shared between these outsiders, that challenge our ideas about family and the conscious decisions that determine what is and what is not a family.

Two people could have a biological child together and not even alert the authorities when that child goes missing. But the group of individuals who decide to take care of that child and show her love and affection in the right way would be deemed kidnappers and criminals by the law. The film powerfully delivers the idea of family and choice in the line – “your bond to your parents is stronger when you choose them, but normally you don’t get to choose.” As someone who grew up in a large family –  with many cousins around, family events regularly planned, and a number of intricate dynamics to maneuver – the idea of choosing your family really stuck with me since first watching the film weeks ago and challenged me to adequately compose my thoughts in this piece.

I believe the strength of my ties to my family lies in the individual relationships I have specifically chosen to develop with specific members of my family. But to assume that closeness applies to the entire family unit as a whole would be an oversight. While I can hope and aspire to have a healthy, strong relationship with absolutely every family member, I would be dooming myself to disappoint if I were completely focused on accomplishing such a goal. Shoplifters showed me that functional families don’t have to look a certain way. Real families are based on care and closeness, luckily for me, I get to make the choice to follow this. I can choose to be satisfied with the dynamics I have with people in my family and recognize the mutual feelings between me and them. And from there, I can happily live my life knowing that whether or not we shared blood ties, the people that I think of when I hear the word “family” will always be that.

Thank you Hirokazu Kore-eda for making this film.

Rating: 5/5

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