Tokyo Grift

‘Shoplifters’ Has More Plot Than It Needs

Sticky fingers lead to sticky situations in Shoplifters, especially when it runs in the family. Gentle scofflaw Osamu (Lily Franky) guides his son Shota (Kairi Jō) in the art of petty theft, sneaking packages of food into backpacks and coat pockets. It’s a welcome way to plump up mealtime for their hand-to-mouth brood: wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki). Packed together in a rickety Tokyo shack, they all barely scrape by with pooled incomes (Osamu lands the odd construction job, Nobuyo works at a laundry, Hatsue has her dead husband’s pension). But they clearly fill their house with love. They dote on one another with effortless smiles.

So what to do when they discover abandoned little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki)? They take her in, of course, especially when they notice signs of child abuse. Nobuyo resists at first, but eventually warms to the anxious bed-wetter. Their house becomes her new home after the group picks up some new clothes for her with their favorite five-finger discount. They also give her a new name, Rin, while keeping an eye on the TV news in case her biological parents start looking.

Then cracks begin to show. Shota starts to get resentful about Rin, as he’s put in charge of teaching her how to steal. Aki laughs with her grandma about the granddaughter’s creepy job stripping in front of a two-way mirror. And Nobuyo’s co-worker threatens to spill the beans about her past. Nobuyo’s response: If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.

These motley individuals have bruised souls. And the pain runs deep. As the film progresses, writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda parcels out clue after clue, peeling off yet another layer to expose more of the truth behind each damaged person.  Yuri is living proof of the film’s overriding message: Why must blood dictate kinship? Shouldn’t love?

SHOPLIFTERS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-edA
Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jō, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki
Running time: 121 min.


A modern-day master of pregnant emotion, Kore-eda stages seemingly mundane moments that slowly swell into overwhelming catharsis. And Shoplifters, which nabbed the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is no exception. He peppers this  potent portrait of a struggling clan working the angles in a heartless society with scenes both heartwarming and heart-wrenching—often at the same time. But it saves its big-cry punches for a cascade of shocking revelations at the end. And that’s where it slips.

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two

The burst of details, already jarring, becomes overwhelming. Don’t think too hard about any of it, though, or else the unraveling really begins. Cue the crimes of passion, murder, financial shakedowns, kidnaping, and lies upon lies, a litany of desperate behavior from people we’ve grown to love. How could this person do that without getting caught? Why didn’t the cops follow up about that other situation? Why should we presume the dead husband really loved the jilted grandma? Why the hell are they letting this guy be around that boy unsupervised? And we’re not supposed to lose sympathy for any of these grifters? Seriously bad behavior gets glossed over in service of another perfectly-positioned poignant scene.

In Kore-eda’s early-career triumph, 1998’s purgatory fantasia After Life, angelic social workers literally re-create the happiest memory of each recently deceased person for them to take to heaven. His 2004 film Nobody Knows is based on a true story about unloved children left alone in their apartment for four weeks.  And 2013’s Like Father, Like Son examines the fallout after two babies—one from a rich family, one from a poor one—are switched at birth. These are high-art high concepts, the kind of simple premises that allow him to practice his ongoing exploration of deeply-felt sentiment.

After a tender confession of her own, Nobuyo envelops Rin in a protective bear hug that’s achingly beautiful. Aki allows one of her strip-club regulars, a shy stutterer, to touch her, and their tender embrace is a masterclass in yearning. When Osamu and Nobuyo playfully tumble into an unexpected sex scene, the intimate episode is absolutely adorable. At its best, Kore-eda’s gentle technique is quiet, deliberate, and devastating.

But at its worst, his structure comes off as overly schematic and more than a little manipulative. An unexpected arrest triggers the film’s exposition avalanche towards the end, and the whole scene screams Second Act Climax. There’s beauty to Shoplifters, but not all of it feels quite so effortless and inevitable. There are times when the slight-of-hand is a bit too obvious. That said, the indelible final image interlaces hope and despair with staggering grace. And that’s hard to shake, even if the rest of the movie sometimes feels like a swindle.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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