Shoplifters stars Lily Franky, Sakura Ando and Mayu Matsuoka and was directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. It tells the story of an extremely poor family living in Tokyo who subsist on the food and other items that they’re able to steal. After saving a young girl left alone to freeze on a porch, the film explores the connections and experiences that the family has with this girl and with each other.
There’s a phrase that I’ve always hated: “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”. Not only do I find it kinda dismissive of relationships in general, but I also wholeheartedly disagree. Although DNA dictates your relatives, it doesn’t determine your family. Much like friendship, family’s also a choice. Sometimes genetically related people choose to be a family and sometimes they don’t. I feel a bit like I’m giving an alternate take to the closing monologue of Mrs. Doubtfire, but just cause you share some DNA with a person, it doesn’t automatically make them family. Family is an entity all its own; something that requires effort and something that shifts and changes over time.
Films showcasing non-traditional families aren’t too uncommon, especially these days. Single parents, adopted kids, LGBTQ couples, foster homes, grandparents raising kids; we’ve seen it all. We’ve also seen ragtag groups of friends bonding over shared experiences to become friend-families… framlies? But Shoplifters provides a family dynamic unlike anything I’ve seen before. This isn’t a group of friends. This is a family. But their true connections to one another aren’t entirely clear. They present rather typically at first, but hints are dropped along the way to suggest that what we had assumed about the group might not be true.
In fact, it’s not until the final twenty minutes or so when the entire truth is even revealed. Shoplifters is a movie that never would’ve been on my radar had it not been for its Oscar nomination. The initial trailer that I saw didn’t do much to pique my interest, but I have to say that I was totally invested by the ten minute mark of the film. I didn’t expect this to be as compelling as it was. Despite the unique family dynamics and the prevalent child crime, this felt incredibly real. If it wasn’t for the especially cinematic elements, you might suspect that this was a documentary rather than a work of fiction.
There’s certainly a narrative structure to the film, but it’s put together as a series of moments that feel tangible. The people and relationships feel real. The winter days feel cold, while the summer is sweltering and our six characters exist through it all. As I mentioned before, this film has got some really great cinematic moments. It’s mostly shot in a right-in-the-mix-of-things style, however there are a few scenes that stand out due to their lighting or framing: Osamu and Shota playing in the junkyard, the entire Shibata family trying to watch the fireworks, the rolling oranges. But then there are moments that are less impressive.
The eating scenes, for instance, rival the grotesqueness of the numerous spaghetti-eating scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color. There are also some odd plot-based ventures that don’t pay off in any way, like Aki’s job and the strange connection she has with Mr. Four. Despite its slow and, at times, languishing pace, I found Shoplifters to be a compelling character study. Much like the individual fish learned to school together to survive in Shota’s fish book, this family banded together to survive as well. But it wasn’t just survival for survival’s sake. These individuals showed true bonds, consistently looking out for each other even if that meant endangering themselves. DNA alone doesn’t guarantee that kind of care and loyalty. We’d like to think it does, but just like the mother who imagines her child needs her, it’s just not the case. Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons.
The first pro is definitely the message. The story alone puts forward the idea that a family can be made up of anybody, but that’s further reinforced by the dialogue quite frequently too. Lines like – “Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.” or “You usually can’t choose your parents” bring the concept to the forefront of the film, making this a very relatable story regardless of your own family situation. Pro number two is the cinematography. It wasn’t always spectacular, but the moments it shines are especially brilliant. I think perhaps my favorite shot in the film is when the entire family is on the porch, craning to look past the roof at the fireworks they know they won’t be able to see. On the con side, I think this film meandered a little too much at times.
I never lost interest, so it wasn’t all that bad, but there were more than a few moments in the movie that didn’t contribute to the core family’s story at all, so they felt a bit superfluous. Con number two is more of a personal pet peeve of mine, but the eating scenes were so obnoxious to me. Obnoxious and extremely abundant. I know that there are cultural differences regarding noodle eating, but watching and listening to those slurping scenes was borderline torture for me.
It was almost as bad as watching Adele shovel spaghetti into her constantly open mouth for half of Blue Is the Warmest Color. At least these people didn’t chew with their mouths wide open, so that made it slightly more bearable. Before I give you my rating and recommendations, I want to remind you that if you’re interested in buying Shoplifters or any of the films I mentioned today, I do have affiliate links for all of them in the description below.
I get a small commission from anything you buy using one of my links, so I’d really appreciate if you’d use them if you’re in the market for any of these movies. I’m gonna give Shoplifters 3.5 out of 5 paws. I didn’t really have any expectations going into this movie, but I came out with an appreciation for the character crafting and family dynamics it explored. I would recommend Shoplifters to people who like characters more than plot. Don’t get me wrong: there’s definitely a narrative plot here, but it’s entirely driven by our six main characters and the choices they make regarding themselves and each other.
It’s a bit slow at times and follows a slice-of-life story framing style, but the pay-off is worth it if you’re able to get invested in the characters. If you liked Shoplifters, I would recommend Pickpocket. One of the first things that got me engaged with Shoplifters was Osamu and Shota’s shoplifting routine. If those scenes were compelling to you too, then you’ll find Pickpocket’s pickpocketing scenes even more gripping.
If you were interested in the Asian family culture plotlines of this film, you’ll definitely want to check out The Farewell for another heartfelt film about family, this time set in China. And for more non-traditional family dynamics and child criminals, check out the less heartfelt, but more action intensive Leon: The Professional. Alright a couple questions for you guys. Number one: Have you seen Shoplifters? If so, what’d you think of it? And number two: What’s your favorite film that features a child directly participating in a crime? Be sure to leave your answers in the comments below so we can get a discussion going.