Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Best Film in Years
DIRECTED BY HIROKAZU KORE-EDA/JAPANESE/2019
I don’t know if Hirokazu Kore-Eda was directly influenced by the Italian neo-realism masterpiece Bicycle Thieves when he directed Shoplifters, but I heavily suspect it. Like Vittoria De Sica, Kore-Eda takes the audience down an ethical journey, where your mind tells you the actions are wrong but your heart sides with the characters. And, like life, you take a few seemingly harmless steps, and a few more, and it’s not until you’re in too deep, do you look back and evaluate your actions and see what you have done.
Three generations of one family live in a small home in a very poor part of Tokyo. Each do menial and degrading jobs to keep the family afloat. Capitalism, in one of the richest cities in the world, needs some losers in order to move forward. And this family, lead by a father who is trying his best to be a patriarch with dignity, played wonderfully by Lily Franky, teaches his kids how to shoplift.
They go into grocery stores and other businesses, he will distract the clerk, and it’s usually then up to his son Shota (Kairi Jyo), and presumably the male who will inherit this lifestyle, to actually take the items and run.
A horrible life to live, some would say. It’s filled with crime. That is an empirical and indisputable truth. Yet why is it that we see the daughter of the family, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), perform as a sex worker, dancing for leering and creepy men, do we get a deeper feeling of disgust in our stomachs than when we see the shoplifting? That is in no way to slut-shame sex workers, but when the film focuses on Aki outside of her job, there is no impression given that this is what she wanted with her life. As that impression is also given this isn’t what any of them wanted with their lives.
Along the way, they find a young girl. Hungry and alone. She ran away from home. They feed her, even though they are scrounging for resources as is. They give her a home, even though they have very little room. And when they take her back to her house, to return her to her family, and as they hear screaming coming from her house, they decide (and not necessarily wrongly) that her life would be better with them.
Another term for that is kidnapping. But with a family that has their own definition of ethics that is separate from the law’s interpretation, they make a decision they think is right.
As they take their new family member into the world of theft, the audience questions, legitimately, who is right and who is wrong. Shoplifters is a beautiful film and unless you are the most self righteous of the self righteous, you will feel immense empathy and love for the characters.
This should be mandatory viewing for anyone who screams “THEY BROKE THE LAW” on social media to defend a heinous punishment, usually without due process, in response to a petty crime that was committed, oftentimes by a minority.
Because the laws are written not necessarily to separate the good from bad, but to protect those who are in power. So petty larceny chips away from businesses, but a girl forced into a life of sex work, well those rich Japanese businessmen need something to look at when they aren’t doing their important capitalistic work, right?
Maybe they are just a family of criminals. But Hirokazu Kore-Eda has given us a world to spend two hours in that will teach you more about morality than most people who can brag they’ve never been arrested will ever bring to your life.