Shoplifters Review: A Heart-Wrenching, Beautiful, Morally Complex Tale of a Family’s Togetherness Amidst Poverty

Hirokazu Kore-eda has often said that he preferred being compared to a filmmaker like Ken Loach as opposed to Yasujiro Ozu, and with Shoplifters, it’s easy to see why. But just like the British realist filmmaker at his very best, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ability to craft a story about a group of people trying to overcome the very worst that their life has set in stone for them with such empathy is also what makes for an endearing experience. I knew from watching a film about such people trying to survive in a world that is built by nothing beyond dreary cynicism would already be depressing, but Hirokazu Kore-eda presents every moment of Shoplifters in such a way that hits incredibly close to home. These could be people you know up close, people who are desperate to survive because they cannot find jobs. These are people who you recognize as real, inside a world that you inhabit. No matter how much you would want to believe that this isn’t something that you could see such people stooping down to, you only have one instinct running through your head – you simply want them to survive. To say the least, this is where the power of a tragic tale lies within, and a whole lot more.

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As the title would already tell you, this film tells the story of a family who shoplift as a means of survival as they overcome poverty. But whether or not they truly are a family by blood, it’s one of the lesser important facets as to the effectiveness of Shoplifters. During one of their shoplifting sessions, they find a young girl lying outside in the cold, prompting the family to take them inside as a means of protection from her abusive parents. You know already that these are people who only want nothing but the best coming for one another, and they only ever stick by their principle despite the risks that would be coming along. You recognize these people as a family because they live exactly like one, but their means of survival is only troubled by what they must overcome. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s camera doesn’t only observe their lifestyle but even feels like you’re seeing life right from their eyes, through the many ups and downs, if there’s any other way you can truly find yourself connected with such people trying to overcome poverty. Just sticking around the smaller moments in this family’s life is enough to make something so incredibly moving, because of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ability to build empathy on the spot.

This isn’t subject matter that would be unfamiliar to Hirokazu Kore-eda, for his film Nobody Knows told of a similar struggle being experienced by abandoned children. In the case with Shoplifters you see a story of people who are brought together by the common ground that they cannot escape the very worst that their life places in front of them. In the film’s first sequence, which demonstrates how the family had become successful shoplifters over such time, Kore-eda portrays the act as being vital for survival. But to frame the incident through the eyes of its child lead is where you’re finding yourself inside of his own eyes, wondering if this truly is an ideal lifestyle, one that would allow him to grow up properly. Morality plays an important role in Shoplifters, especially from the children’s perspectives as this lifestyle would prevent them from reaching greater aspirations in life. Hirokazu Kore-eda explores how even wanting to survive would damage a soul so drastically, thus creating a truly heart-wrenching perspective on poverty in the modern world.

Despite that motif being survival, there’s also something incredibly touching just about seeing a family try to make the best of what they have. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s filmography has built itself upon the fundamentals of allowing a family to stick together even through the drama they endure, but in the case with Shoplifters he’s also dealing with a subject that he had been challenged with in Nobody Knows. In that sense, you have a film all about how people are damaged by the fact that their living conditions would even make their lifestyle challenge legal means, but you still see an ordinary family trying to live a life that resembles any ordinary family. In even these attempts to be ordinary, they also result in the film’s most moving sequences, because you want to see happiness the way in which this family of shoplifters does. Every bond feels too perfectly realized, like you could be a friend of any member or even a part of the family too – creating a wholly powerful experience.

Suddenly this film takes a huge shift in tone, in a way that I don’t think I have expected from Kore-eda. But in the context of this film, it also feels like an expected consequence. It feels so harsh, and yet never dishonest about what’s to come in a world that only builds itself upon the cruelty made normal in our world. Many of these revelations that come forward also make for a more heartbreaking scenario, yet the moments of togetherness are also made even more touching too. Even knowing the truth doesn’t change the way you saw these people, but in how Hirokazu Kore-eda creates something so morally complex in this revelation, it also highlights another issue made prevalent in modern society. Everyone is so desperate to survive in a world that is slowly falling atop its own people, you start to feel that struggle on the inside. It’s also where some of the most beautiful moments between family members are formed, and they’re also made even better by the performances from the cast too.

When you watch a film like Shoplifters, you sit there listening to these people share their story of how in spite of their living conditions they have always wanted to remain so happy. But the harsh reality of the world they live in hits in and then comes that realization these are people you might remember somewhere. You don’t know their names, you just know their faces, but you’re also left with a moment to wonder to yourself what you could have done to keep these people together. If there’s anything that Hirokazu Kore-eda has always been best at, it’s clear from every moment you see family dynamics working together, because of his understanding of what it is that truly keeps people connected in some sense. Then he mixes all of that in with some harsh social commentary, and with Shoplifters, what he’s also brought us, is nothing less than one of the year’s very best films. It’s never anything less than beautiful, it’s never anything less than heart-wrenching, but all in all, it’s truly an outstanding achievement.


Watch the trailer right here.

All images via Magnolia Pictures.


Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Screenplay by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Produced by Matsuzaki Kaoru, Yose Akihiko, Taguchi Hijiri
Starring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kairi Jō, Miyu Sasaki, Kirin Kiki
Release Date: December 21, 2018 (Canada)
Running Time: 121 minutes

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