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Steal your heart

A petty crime family reckons with itself in ‘Shoplifters’

Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Mayu Matsuoka, Miyu Sasaki, and Jyo Kairi in “Shoplifters”

Sometimes there is a thin line between stealing something and rescuing it.

That’s the intriguing philosophical premise of “Shoplifters,” the Japanese film from acclaimed director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Revered for his sensitive and poignant family dramas, Kore-eda’s latest took the top prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

Whichever side of that thin line you land on is ultimately a matter of perspective, and perspective is what Kore-eda continues to shift and redefine as the story unfolds, all to compelling effect.

The Shibata family lives on the margins in Tokyo. Their various part-time jobs barely keep them above the poverty line. To make up the difference, they shoplift necessities like food and clothing.

Osamu, the dad, spearheads the grocery store operations with 10-year-old son Shota while mother Nobuyo helps with clothes in department stores. They implement their sly system with mischievous fun. The young adult daughter Aki, meanwhile, works at a strip club, doing solo dances in cubicles for individual patrons. Grandmother Hatsue also lives with them.

One night on the way home from “getting” groceries, Osamu and Shota come across a seven-year-old girl named Yuri who is orphaned on the streets. Taking sympathy on her, they bring Yuri back to their dilapidated home, making her one of their own.

Inevitably, they bring Yuri into their family trade, but for the Shibatas this is actually a gesture of affection, even if it’s also opportunistic. That affection is genuine, and bonds begin to form between Yuri and the family.

As they do, however, it triggers a moral crisis for each of the Shibatas—first individually, then collectively—who become troubled by the reality that they’re corrupting an innocent girl whom they’re growing to love.

Compounding their guilt are moments when Yuri mentions, unexpectedly, examples of trauma she suffered in her original home. These recollections for Yuri are matter-of-fact, but they come as devastating blindsides for the Shibatas (and for us as well).

Along with that guilt comes an existential question: When everything is a grift, how real and authentic are your closest relationships—even in your family? Granted, the Shibatas can’t be defined simply by their petty crimes, yet it begins to gnaw at each of them as they consider how cavalier they’ve been in their amoral desperation.

Kore-eda and his superb cast explore these struggles—from daily life to those of the conscience—with a powerful naturalism and profound empathy. As the nature of this family reveals itself, the film’s pathos expands.

Never sentimental but deeply emotional, Kore-eda doesn’t let his characters off the hook, but that’s indicative of the compassion he has for them. These are good people, and he doesn’t want them to compromise that.

The ensemble approaches their roles in the same way, with Sakura Andô’s mother Nobuyo and Jyo Kairi’s son Shota being the most raw and moving. As little Yuri, Miyu Sasaki is heartbreakingly fragile, too.

A reckoning comes for every family. That’s really what “Shoplifters” is about. A family’s survival will depend on how honestly they deal with that reckoning, but only so long as that honesty doesn’t come too late.

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