Shoplifters offers further proof that Tolstoy was hasty to declare that all happy families are alike.
The contented Japanese band we meet in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film is nothing if not unique, although just how unusual we don’t grasp until the final frames.
Early clues: They’re grifters, living in a one-room apartment that belongs to “granny” (Kirin Kiki), who scrapes by on her late husband’s pension. A Daughter (Sakura Ando) works in a laundry, supplementing her meager salary by taking what she finds in the pockets of customers' coats. Her husband (Lily Franky) is a shoplifter, and teaches their son (Kairi Jyo) the craft. There’s a half-sister (Mayu Matsuoka) who works in a peep show.
The sources of income are not always legitimate, but the group is legitimately happy, even generous of spirit. When father and son see a freezing, neglected little girl alone on a balcony, they take her home — an overnight visit turns into a semipermanent arrangement amenable to all, even if it amounts to kidnapping.
We accept this narrative turn because the girl (Miyu Sasaki, off-the-charts adorable) accepts the change in circumstance. She is loved, fed, clothed, and relieved to be free of the physical abuse she suffered from her biological mother and (we sense) a string of temporary “fathers.”
There is a certain Dickensian appeal in watching Kore-eda lay out the dynamics of decency that define the relationships among the members of this strange family as they hustle to make ends meet. Even so, his portrait would go gooey — the movie does sag midway — if not for intimations of deeper currents at work.
These are investigated in the movie’s startling final third, when our assumptions about the family are overturned, even as the emotional glue that holds the characters together is affirmed. This includes a remarkable, deeply memorable scene of the whole gang going to the beach, and granny, who likes to relax at the end of the day by pounding a 16-ounce Sapporo, watching her family with quiet joy as they frolic in the surf, hand in hand, timing unified jumps over the incoming waves.
Thank you, she says, and we don’t know whether she means the people in the water, or life itself, which has afforded her the privilege of having lived so long, surrounded in the end by people who care about her.
It’s a testament to Kore-eda’s skill as a storyteller that he’s able to vary the tone of Shoplifters so substantially in the final scenes without making us feel we’re watching a different or adulterated movie.
Most of the revelations (loosely based on actual events) only deepen our understanding of the characters, and strengthen our connections to them. There is one narrative thread that pushes credibility to its limit, but there is more in Shoplifters that resonates and rings true.
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. With Kirin Kiki, Sakura Ando, Lily Franky, Kairi Jyo, Mayu Matsuoka. Miyu Sasaki. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 121 minutes
Parents guide: R (sex)