Growing up, I seldom felt like as though I was the one choosing my friends. We just fell in with each other, ate lunch with each other, and I never really said no. Sometimes we bonded over a song, or a movie, or just tolerating each other. And even though I still love many of my friends from growing up–and in some cases, am in awe of where they are and what they’re up to–most of them never figure into my life at all. Still, whenever I think of my friends from childhood, my mind goes to those afternoons, sitting around a lunch table with seven or eight guys every day, eating, talking, taking the piss out of each other. Being annoying, no doubt, but still being together.
Such circumstantial familiars are hardly uncommon, but few are as necessary as the titular family of Shoplifters. Harikazu Kore-eda’s Running on Empty meets The Florida Project is all about the family we choose, and why we choose them. Told largely from the perspective of ten-year-old Shota (Kairi Jō), part of a rag tag group of hustlers and low-wage workers, Shoplifters unfolds much like a child growing up to find out that their family dynamic is darker and more complicated than realized. In spite of the film’s willful murkiness, Shoplifters is a captivating portrait of families making their way through poverty, doing their best to take care of one another.
Shoplifters is the sort of film that instructs the audience how to watch, with the first scene detailing the procedure that Shota and mentor/father figure Osamu (Lily Franky) employ for stealing from a grocery store. We see them, we see the way they look at others, we see what they steal, the intricate hand signals they use, and we see them get away. If they are not great at what they do, they are at least capable enough to survive, and only steal what hasn’t been stolen. That is the movie in a nutshell. Kore-eda shows characters whose relationship is vaguely identifiable in the first shot, and by the end, we’ve seen their tried and true dynamic wordlessly demonstrated, even if what that dynamic represents is not totally acceptable.
In fact, silence plays a notable role in Shoplifters. Not only are the finer details of these characters’ backstories withheld from the audience for nearly the entire film, but from each other. They don’t want certain people listening, or to be heard saying something that could get them in trouble. This is particularly true of Shota, who refuses to address Osamu as “father,” even though that’s largely how everyone knows them. Shota just isn’t comfortable with that kind of relationship. This is also true of Yuri (Miyu Saski), a girl who’s daughter to a woman rumored to be a prostitute about the neighborhood.
Yuri is discovered by Shota and Osamu on the rainy evening after their opening heist. Shota insists the and Osamu help her, and Osamu relents. They take the quiet, watchful Yuri home to Shota’s mother and Osamu’s significant other Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandmotherly owner of the house Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and Hatsue’s step-granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). The family feeds her, and resolves to take her home after the storm has cleared. When Osamu and Nobuyo take Yuri home, they’re stopped before they get to the front door by a violent screaming match coming from the house–which includes Yuri’s mother saying she did not want Yuri.
The family decides to take care of Yuri, deeming their fostering of Yuri to be safer than her actual, potentially abusive home. Almost immediately, Yuri is listed as a missing person. Rather than turning her over, which could result in the entire family’s complicity to kidnapping, they commit fully to Yuri. Nobuyo cuts Yuri’s hair, and they give her a new name: Lin. Osamu and Shota even teach her how to shoplift, at which Yuri proves to be surprisingly adept. She’s fully integrated into a clan of scammers. Noboyu skims from the industrial laundry where she works. Hatsue, meanwhile, is skimming money from Aki’s parents–unbeknownst to Aki. Aki is the most legitimate as more or less a legalized sex worker at a hostess club.
As we slowly learn, none of these people–save Hatsue and Aki–are related. In fact, Aki might not even know that Nobuyo and Osamu have no blood relation to Hatsue. Yet, they assume the surname Shibata together, live under the same very small roof, and live a very underprivileged life together. Kore-eda–much like Sean Baker before him–is quite honest about the extent of poverty, and the toll living with so few options has on people. But Shoplifters is not a miserable, nor fetishistic commentary on being dirt poor. On one hand, this is a group so tightly-knit and secretive towards others that not even Osamu and Nobuyo have nearly zero room for intimacy. At the same time, even though the Shibatas are all the Shibatas have, They have a trust and rapport that would fool anyone on the outside.
The Shibatas are certainly a lot more connected than the actual families we see in the movie. Aki’s parents think she’s in Australia, not even realizing their daughter is in the same city. We already know Yuri’s deal, whose mother waits several days before the police begin any kind of investigation. The film’s central image, of the Shibatas standing at the edge of the ocean while the waves ebb and flow around them, is of Hatsue looking on from the shore, looking on at the family who she has taken care of, and who have taken care of her. Kore-eda–whose humanist, domestic curiosities openly echo Yasujiro Ozu–parallels Tokyo Story in this moment–another story about one’s relationship with their family. In Ozu’s film, the grandmother looks on as her grandchild plays in a field, barely aware of her. Aware of life going on without her. Kore-eda’s allusion recalls a similar melancholy, but for a brief moment, captures a sort of pride and affection that transcends their circumstances. They belong to each other.
Watching Shoplifters, I couldn’t help thinking of the family separation and detention of undocumented immigrants that has been taking place under the Trump administration. In that situation, I see families who wanted a better life, who otherwise did nothing wrong, and who made a difficult and brave decision to broke the law to improve the lives of their families and themselves. In Shoplifters, we have a family who take what will not be missed, who take part in increasingly risky behavior, and who make moral compromises that test one’s sympathies. But Shibatas are still the family that took in a girl like Yuri who is otherwise being neglected by her own mother.
However one feels about both scenarios, what does this reveal about the world that ordinary individuals should resort to such desperate measures? In both scenarios, I’m willing to forgive the technical violations of the law. Because what good is a legal system that does no good for those who need the most help? And why can’t we do more for those who are willing to do more for others with just as little as them? What good is biological parentage if moms and dads won’t look after their children? People are bound by blood, but those connections only exist if they are nurtured. In that sense, Shoplifters makes a sly and compelling case that all family is, to some degree, voluntary, and that people don’t need to be related for them to care deeply for one another. If the laws that govern and the ties that bind are invented constructs, and if we have the means to do so, there’s no reason not to do more for one another. I mean, the Shibatas make things work.