Review: Hirokazu Koreeda's 'Shoplifters', An Empathetic And Heartwarming Look At A Family Of Thieves

*NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the Middleburg Film Festival. Shoplifters is in theaters now.*

After an unusual detour with legal thriller The Third Murder, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda returns to his domestic drama comfort zone with Shoplifters, winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. The acclaimed film touches on a topic that has been a touchstone of most of his finest works, the idea that family is more than blood; it's about finding people you care about and care about you. For people who live on the margins of Japanese society this is especially true, and while Koreeda tackles the subject with his usual empathy, warmth, and humor, a darker edge emerges that we haven't seen from the filmmaker in quite some time.

Shoplifters introduces us to Osamu (Koreeda regular Lily Franky), the patriarch of a makeshift family skirting by on the margins of Japanese society.  He has taught his son Shota (Jyo Kairito) how to be an expert shoplifter, and the two of them make for a formidable thieving duo. The family isn't homeless, although they live in a rundown home too small for the number of them crammed inside. They're also not unemployed, but steal because their meager salaries are insufficient. Osamu's wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) works in a clothing factory; the grandma Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki) receives a monthly pension, and sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) has found employment in Japan's sex industry. Their life is messy, exciting, and loving, with each relying on the other for happiness as well as sustenance.

But things get complicated when the big-hearted Osamu encounters Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl apparently abandoned in the cold of night. Taking her in, Yuri quickly becomes part of the family structure, and while Shota is unusually angry about her at first, they all accept her as one of their own. There's more to Yuri's story, though, and it becomes clear that there are people who have hurt her in the past, and are out in search of her.

The conundrum at the heart of Shoplifters is whether Osamu should continue to care for Yuri, keeping her safe in a place full of people who love her, or return her home where she faces possible abuse with her real parents? There are greater considerations than that, as well. Osamu can't promise Yuri an economically comfortable life by any means, and they are still a family of criminals. Perhaps non-violent criminals, but criminals nonetheless. Is that really the appropriate environment to raise a child in?

There's always something so comforting about Koreeda's portrayals of domestic life, where conversations always take place over a plate of noodles or some other delicacy. Scarcely a scene goes by when somebody isn't cooking, talking about food, or shoving something into their mouth. If there is a cinematic equivalent of comfort food, Koreeda's movies are it and Shoplifters is one of the best examples. While the film has taken some heat in Japan for glorifying thievery as a lifestyle, Koreeda passes no judgment on his characters. He chooses to merely observe them and invites us to form our own opinions, all the way up until Koreeda pulls the rug out from under everything we thought we knew.

Perhaps no other director around presents such a vivid picture of the human struggle, its joys, pains, and surprises. Shoplifters, while slight in plot and repetitious to Koreeda's legion of fans, reinforces his special gift for exploring and breaking down unique family structures in a way that is both heartwarming and entertaining.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5