Winner of the 2019 Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival and nominated Best Foreign Film by the Academy Award in 2019, director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is a slow-burning film about a family of shoplifters. The family eat together, each bring in money for the family, go to the beach on the weekend, and generally cohabit. But when the big twist arrives about two-thirds through the film, the viewer is forced to question everything it has just watched.
This review attempts to describe the horrifying subtexts for each of the characters, not generally discussed in reviews of the film. As a result, this review is full of spoilers.
When the film begins, Osamu, the “dad” (played by Lily Frank) and Shota, the 10 year old son in the family (played by Kairi Jo), are coming home after a successful night of shoplifting, when they hear a girl, about 5, at home alone crying. The two quickly decide to take the girl named Yuri in. The strange decision, technically kidnapping, is also somewhat humanitarian. The decision parallels many of the morally ambiguous actions each of the characters partake in throughout the film.
The head of the household Osamu, we eventually learn, is romantically involved with Nobuyo, the “mom” of the family (played by Sakura Ando). The two are bonded together, in part, because the two “stabbed, killed and buried” Nobuyo’s ex-husband. The police admit, however that the judge in the case ruled the murder self-defense, indicating that Nobuyo had been a victim of domestic abuse. In the same way Osamu saved Yuri from her life of abusive parents, it appears, Osamu also saved Nobuyo from an abusive spouse.
Everyone in this family, it seems, has suffered some type of abuse or neglect. One of the main confusions in the film has to do with the grandmother Hatsue (played by Kirin Kiki). Constantly slurping down food and bragging about her “pension,” Hatsue, we learn, was abandoned by her husband, who went on to start a new family. Having left Hatsue possibly in an affair, Hatsue’s ex-husband figures prominently in the film through multiple shrines. And the ex-husband’s son, who has little relation to Hatsue, continues to support Hatsue through regular handouts paid when she comes to visit.
The ex-husband’s son does not know that Hatsue has secretly taken in their eldest daughter, Aki, a teenager/young adult (played by Mayu Matsuoka). Snuggling up to Hatsue in the cold apartment and lovingly brushing Hatsue’s silver hair, it’s clear that Aki adores her adopted grandmother. This may be why Aki protects Hatsue from the truth that she makes her money as a sex worker gyrating for lonely men behind a glass window.
With Aki’s unexplained estrangement from her biological family and her work at a sex parlor, the film makes the faintest suggestion that Aki may have experienced sexual abuse by the father. Like the others in the family, Aki too experienced abuse and has found a safe space in this family of shoplifters.
While Aki is the least developed character in the film, Yuri (played by Miyu Sasaki) becomes the center of the family’s attention. Unlike her biological family who neglected her, the adopted family feeds her, clothes her, preens her, heals her wounds, takes her on outings, hugs her, and generally pays her loads of attention. Yuri even gains an adopted brother in Shota.
After the first night with the family, after Yuri has wet her bed, Hatsue, the grandmother tells her, “Say sorry.” Hatsue is trying to teach the girl good manners. Understanding this, Yuri repeats, “I’m sorry,” several times to show how sorry she is. In contrast, when Yuri returns home to her biological parents, Yuri tries to be affectionate with her mom, touching the scar on her mother’s face just as the adopted family touched and tried to heal her scars. Physically hurt by Yuri’s touch, Yuri’s biological mother tells her to “Say sorry,” but Yuri disobeys her mother. Yuri remains silent and refuses to say “Sorry” even though she knows her mother might hit her. The film jutaposes the intimacy, attention, and love Yuri received in the family of shoplifters against her scenes of neglect at home to underscore that biological families are sometimes not our best families. Yuri’s story suggests that sometimes a ragtag band of shoplifters may provide for us better than our biological families.
While at times it seems the main character is Yuri, we know from the film’s first shot, the main character is Shota. And it is Shota’s actions that eventually bring the story to its dramatic close. One day when Shota is out “shopping” with Yuri, and Yuri bumbles another attempt at shoplifting, Shota creates a distraction by grabbing a bag of oranges and running out of the store, sacrificing himself. The heist lands the family in the police station where they are finally outed. Shota is forced to move into an orphanage. And Yuri must return to her biological parents.
As police bring each of the family members in for questioning, the medium shots of Aki, Nobuyo, and Osamu resemble the police interrogation in Akiro Kurosawa’s film Rashoman. In Rashomon, each of the characters famously share their versions of a crime, making sure to put themselves in the best light, so the truth of what actually happened remains muddled and confused.
In Shoplifters, the truth is similarly muddled. Some of what the police disclose, it turns out, is not completely true. The grandmother Hatsue, for example, was not using Aki to collect money from her family; her family didn’t know Aki lived with the grandmother. Osamu tells the police that Nobuyo kidnapped Yuri, when, in fact, he took Yuri. So when the police ask Nobuyo if Nobuyo stole Yuri because she couldn’t have a child and Nobuyo struggles to answer, the premise of the question itself is false. In fact, Nobuyo was the first to call Yuri’s theft a kidnapping. In fact, Nobuyo tried to take Yuri back the first night. Aki’s misunderstanding of Hatsue, the police’s misunderstanding of Nobuyo, and Osamu’s recounting of events are all inaccurate. They nevertheless reveal the character’s deeper truths. Perhaps Nobuyo did want Yuri as her child, Nobuyo suggests.
Even the children, Yuri and Shota, perpetuate the lies they are instructed to tell. Yuri’s drawing of the family features only five people at the beach. And when the police ask Shota if he’s hiding anything, he says no. Far from being amoral, the children’s lies demonstrate their innocence but also their dignity and loyalty to the family.
In the end, after the family has been separated by the police, Shota finally gets a day off from the orphanage to go fishing with Osamu, something he always wanted to do. At the end of their day together, Shota invites himself over to stay overnight at Osamu’s place, which he knows will get Osamu in trouble with the orphanage.
The next morning, when Shota says goodbye to Osamu and gets on the bus by himself, he knows he may never be able to see Osamu again, and he whispers the words “father” to himself. Shota shows he has finally accepted his adopted family as his real family. Momentarily free from the orphanage when he now lives, there is a good chance Shota may be headed for Yuri, who he has been told is his “sister.” Both conceived as a theft from a neglectful family, Yuri and Shota are indeed related.
In the scene’s final scene, as Yuri peeks over the edge of her patio railing, her eyes light up in recognition. The film points to a possible future where Shota saves Yuri. Shota would certainly be breaking the rules of the orphanage, but it is the ending we all want.
Although on its face, the film seems to be about a band of lazy, conniving, morally bankrupt individuals who steal and cheat without any concern for the people they take from, the family of shoplifters are also caring, attentive, humble people who ultimately give of themselves and inadvertently love one another along the way.