Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters: Life in the Margins
When we think of family, we think of our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers–their faces plastered in our minds, our shared experiences imprinted in our memories, and the tenderness of home reverberating in our collective consciousness. But the idea of a family unit sewn together by blood has become more stilted over time, and continues to further estrange itself from the idea of family that we know today. As multicultural and transnational Americans, we know this to be all the more true: often your family is one you choose for yourself. There is no one who knows this quite as well as Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose patient narratives spin fate and circumstance together with an omnipotent awareness of resilience in adversity.
Kore-eda has received global acclaim for his masterful storytelling, garnering comparisons to other prolific filmmakers like Yasjuiro Ozu & the Dardenne Brothers. Recurring motifs of family run deep in his work. Shoplifters echoes a longing for familial stability present in his other films (Nobody Knows & Like Father Like Son, etc.), but expands upon the sentiment with newfound convolution. He weaves the lives of a couple and a disenfranchised child together with a tenderness of heart unrivaled by his peers. He introduces a fourth character ravaged by maternal discontent, an orphan girl left to her own devices on the Tokyo streets, and as the story unravels itself, the characters slowly form a collective inseparable bond founded in shared hardship, rather than in ancestral likeness. The narrative unfolds onscreen with Ryûto Kondô’s enchanting cinematography, bolstering the story and rounding out the hard edges of the film a with patient, vibrant visual life.
In the commercial American cinema, there’s a tendency to shy away from telling stories of true hardship and grit in the effort to preserve a character or cast’s morality. Kore-eda doesn’t necessarily afford his stories the same cultivated aesthetic. His characters are real people, often at the brink of themselves looking deep into the abysmal unknown, and therefore, willing to do whatever it takes to salve their existential torment. Set in the modern Japanese recession where an ever-increasing number of people are in need of government assistance, falling into poverty or worse, Kore-eda dives fearlessly and without judgment into the calamity of life in impoverished Japan. In this way, we are offered a fleeting moment to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see all that makes us who we are: the good, the absolutely grotesque, and everything in between. Kore-eda delivers us the frigid brutality of circumstance with a beating heart of humanity somewhere deep within.
Kore-eda is remarkable for his atypical dissection of family. Told by anyone else, Shoplifters might have been a story of petty crime, abduction, and abuse, but this film holds no space for moral absolutism, in much the same way his other films do. He pits our expectations against reality and forces us to come to our own conclusions about what is fair, what is right, and what is necessary to our longevity, not just as individuals in our own family units, but as members of a shared human experience.
Shoplifters was awarded the Palme d’Or, the highest honor at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and is in theaters now.