In the midst of the happiest moment in “Shoplifters,” a family day at the beach, the grandma of the family comments, “It’s not going to last long.” Later, as the rest of the family is in the water, she says, “thank you” to herself over and over.
That may be as close as we come to a manifesto from the prolific Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has made a string of acclaimed films (“After the Storm,” “Our Little Sister”) about ordinary families struggling with ordinary problems. Life is hard, his films tell us, and bound to get harder. So take care of the people around you, and enjoy the good moments when they come.
The Oscar-nominated “Shoplifters” may be the high watermark of his career. It develops and deepens the themes he’s been working on for years — the inner lives of children and the elderly, the importance of families both biological and invented, and the difficulty of living with dignity in a modern global economy. At times watching the film feels like eavesdropping on real people, and we’re so lulled by the mundane rhythms of their lives that we don’t realize how emotionally invested we become in them.
Crammed into a small, deteriorating house, the family in “Shoplifters” seems to be a loving one. Yet they live in such an economically precarious state that the father, Osamu (Lily Franky), and his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) have to shoplift to make ends meet. “Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” Osamu says by way of justification.
Osamu works as a day laborer, building apartment buildings too expensive for him to live in, while the mother, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) is a maid, cleaning hotel rooms she’ll never stay in. Nobuyo's younger sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) works at an adult peep show at night, but it’s grandma’s pension that largely keeps the family afloat from month to month.
One night, Osamu spies a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) on her patio, locked out of her home by her bickering parents. The girl is starving and covered with scars of abuse, and the good-hearted Osamu “shoplifts” her off the patio and brings her home. It’s a rescue in his eyes, but a kidnapping in the eyes of society. Yuri warms to her new family, experiencing affection and tenderness that she’s never known before.
But her presence in the home is the start of its unraveling, and we learn that little is as it seems in this family. As we learn more about their circumstances, we see that, each in their own way, these are people who society has thrown away. That they’ve found each other, and are committed to each other, is poignant and powerful — even if that bond is based on crime.
In its quiet, gentle way, “Shoplifters” builds to an emotional climax that’s all the more devastating for the restraint that Kore-eda shows. It’s an ending that finds hope amid despair, hope that that which is torn apart in life can someday be put back together.