After the relative left turn that was his last film, the pensive procedural The Third Murder, Japanese director Koreeda Hirokazu has once against embraced the Ozu-inflected family drama territory for which he is best known. And with Shoplifters, that embrace is as ferocious and beautiful and loving as that of a mother trying to hug away all her child’s fears. His Cannes Competition film is a gorgeous thing, a kind of culmination of all of the director’s best qualities, unalloyed by the sentimentality that can sometimes sweeten his mixes too much.
Director Koreeda Hirokazu
Shibata Osamu Lily Franky
Shibata Nobuyo Sakura Ando
Shibata Aki Mayu Matsuoka
Shibata Hatsue Kilin Kiki
Shibata Shota Kairi Jyo
Hojo Juri Miyu Sasaki
Original Japanese title Manbiki Kazoku
In fact, beneath even the sunniest parts of this seasonal story, about a makeshift Japanese family scarcely one rung from the bottom of the social ladder who supplement their menial jobs with petty theft, runs a groundwater trickle of anger that swells to a delta in the final moments. Shoplifters showcases one of the modern cinema’s great empaths deploying compassion like a time-delay nerve agent; this is Koreeda’s expansive humanism, weaponised.
It starts in a gently comedic vein as, beneath a plinky score, sort-of father Osamu (the irreplaceable Franky Lily) and kind-of son Shota (watchful newcomer Kairi Jyo) move with tag-team grace and secret hand signals through a supermarket, with Shota smuggling the family’s modest grocery needs into his backpack. Outside, they fist bump and go for croquettes, before returning to the cramped apartment that belongs to their not-actual grandmother (the wonderful Kilin Kiki) and which they share with Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando, surely a Cannes Best Actress contender for her luminous, extraordinary final scene alone) and sex worker Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). None of these people are blood-related, but they collectively call themselves the Shibatas.
And the family is about to get bigger. On their way home on a freezing night, Osamu and Shota notice a little girl, Juri (Sasaki Miyu) left home alone, and bring her back with them. At first Nobuyo wants nothing to do with her, but in due course she becomes attached to the girl with a piercing tenderness, toward which the withdrawn Juri incrementally grows, like a daisy opening to the sun.
This is a director who can infuse the tiniest of details – the rolling of a marble in a torchbeam, the swinging of a pigtail – with a hungry, evocative loveliness so ephemeral and yet so acute it can feel like pain. And his skill is that, for a lot of its running time, you may not even notice those muscles being engaged; while there’s never a dull moment, in its early stages Shoplifters can feel aimless. But beware – this is the aimlessness of the practised shoplifter, nonchalantly whistling while ambling down the aisles of our emotions, examining labels and replacing goods on the shelves, the better to make off with half the store.
When the hammer falls it does so with devastating force. Not only does it endanger the togetherness of this wonky, make-believe family, who by now we’d sell a kidney to protect, it introduces surprising, dark elements that force us to reassess the Shibatas’ motives. Shoplifters interrogates the idea of family, which is so central to Koreeda’s body of work, in as furiously humane a manner as he ever has, and perhaps embodies his eternal conclusion with more power than we’ve seen in quite some time. If society truly arranged itself for the happiness of its citizens, family would be a thing you choose and not an accident of birth, but the low-key, lovely lament of Shoplifters is that that is not the way this broken world works.