Family is a pretty strange concept when you get right down to it. We are bound to people by nothing more than societally defined relationships, regardless of ideology, personality, or even emotional compatibility. And, of course, this isn’t solely limited to biological relationships, as social conventions like marriage and adoption shape families in constantly evolving and shifting ways, with the notion that we are each of us tied together in this intricate web of relationships that are supposed to carry intrinsic weight and meaning. But when you break down familial structures, when you really examine what it is other than love that binds people, or what even defines love in the first place, you enter into some messy and troubling territory, which Shoplifters is more than eager to explore and succeeds in provoking the right sorts of questions.
Shoplifters follows the Shibata family, consisting of a grandmotherly matriarch, a parental couple, a young adult daughter, and a pre-pubescent boy, getting by despite their poverty in large part due to the father Osamu (Lily Franky) and son Shota (Jyo Kairi) being extremely adept shoplifters. After a successful day of theft, they find a preschool-age girl (Miyu Sasaki) outside and alone, so they bring her back to their home for a meal before planning to bring her back to the house where they found her. However, as Osamu and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) bring the girl back, they hear abusive language coming from the home, and they realize there may have been a reason the girl was seemingly abandoned. So they decide to informally adopt the girl, who tells them her name is Yuri, and they attempt to integrate her into their ramshackle life.
Yuri is an interesting character in that she is young and elastic enough that her concepts of love’s expression haven’t yet been properly defined for her, meaning that she assumes any act of kindness must in fact be met with an equal and opposite act of abuse. Love is transactional in her eyes, and the ways in which the Shibatas are unreservedly affectionate with one another, if perhaps a bit crass and prone to teasing, are demonstrated to be new experiences for her. Yuri isn’t exactly the protagonist, but as an early audience point-of-view character, she makes for an interesting vantage on the kind of love that binds the Shibatas together, which only becomes more prescient the more we learn about the individual members of this family.
Half the fun of Shoplifters is finding out exactly what it is about this family that is so interesting, so I won’t spoil the bigger secrets here, but the film does a fantastic job of alluding to there being more to their loving world than meets the eye. For instance, eldest daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works in a sex club under an assumed name, and what she sells isn’t intercourse but intimacy, building a relationship with a mute client behind a two-way mirror as he pays for her pseudo-pornographic performance and physical touch. Shota, meanwhile, finds his young existence defined by his role as a shoplifter, mentoring Yuri in his and his father’s craft as he implicitly reveals that this is how love is earned. Even the casual and natural love of the Shibata family is shown to be transactional and dependent upon these characters’ need for one another, and it eventually becomes a question of whether or not this love is freely given or is just being perpetually stolen back and forth between them.
Naturalistically acted and intimately directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters is a striking deconstruction of family that doesn’t arrive at any clean or clear answers, but it lingers in a murky area between cynicism and hope that makes its final moments a wrenching punch to the gut. The Shibatas are a family I’m not liable to forget any time soon, and their story may just make you look at your own relatives, whether biological or chosen, with a new perspective.