Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is one of the mildest and gentlest films of his entire career – an immersive account of the life of a makeshift Japanese family living in the Tokyo suburbs. Makeshift, because while there may be a regular family buried somewhere at the core – or perhaps dispersed across – this collection of individuals, they continuously sprawl beyond the boundaries of regular family life, crowding their small apartment with a unkempt spirit of hospitality. While this family has been accumulating members for some time, the gesture that gets the film going is their spontaneous adoption of a young girl who lives in a neighbouring apartment complex, who they discover is being physically abused and neglected by her parents. At first they offer her shelter for a night or two, but she quickly becomes a part of their household, partly because it takes her parents a couple of months to even report her to the authorities, so unconcerned are they about her disappearance. During that time, she becomes an integral part of her new family and, as the family’s newest addition, the closest that the film comes to a single point of view on the action that unfolds.
To say that she is the protagonist, however, would be an exaggeration, since Kore-eda moves from one member of this multifarious ensemble to another with a matter-of-fact naturalism, or pragmatism, that never prioritises any one party. While the family are never quite comfortable, they’re never quite lacking either, working their way through an economy in which worker’s compensation is available, but workshare is also a fact of life. Nobody is exactly struggling to survive, but “everybody gets a little poorer” day by day as well, as Koreeda takes us through a panorama of different workplaces, from brothels to constructions sites, in a remarkably understated and unassuming evocation of everyday Japanese life. The result has been compared to Yasujiro Ozu, but part of the pathos of the film, if it ever quite attains or aspires to pathos, is that the stately serenity, and studied melancholy, of classical Japanese cinema is somehow no longer available as a cinematic vocabulary. Certainly, Koreeda may frequently train his camera on the kinds of vistas that sustained Ozu’s trademark pillow shows, but only to suggest that they’ve long been divested of the luminous grandeur, and contemplative immanence, that they once exuded.
Within that environment, the main register of the film is a kind of gentle sweetness, or even cuteness, that occasionally verges on being kitsch, twee, or trite, especially whenever children are involved. Watching it, I felt transported back to the international art cinema that proliferated throughout the 90s in Western theatres, and which typically presented exotic domestic cultures mediated through the universal and ecumenical experience of childhood. There’s a bit of that here, too, although it’s offset by the mild economic unease that percolates throughout the film, which, as the title might suggest, sees the family resorting to shoplifting to make ends meet. Yet while these shoplifting sequences anchor the film, and provide it with its conclusion, they’re not as prominent as the title might suggest, as Koreeda more or less presents them as one form of gleaning amongst others, and as a normal – almost expected – part of the rhythm of everyday suburban subsistence.
For all those reasons, the end of the film is just as gentle as the preceding two hours. Certainly, it’s sad to see this provisional family shut down and absorbed into state bureaucracy after the “abduction” of the local girl is discovered. Certainly, too, the new spaces allocated to the family lack the cosy spontaneity of their original apartment. Yet the effect is too gentle to ever really be bleak, as, once again, Koreeda gives us a mild sense of life just continuing on. Even the death of the grandmother who watches over the family is mediated through the same pragmatic naturalism, as the film folds in its existential moments so seamlessly that you could almost miss them amidst its quotidian textures. It’s not hard to see, then why the 2018 Cannes Jury lauded Shoplifters for what Cate Blanchett, as Jury President, describes as its remarkable synergy of actors, director and subject matter. Still, it’s also hard to escape the feelings that this may be one of the least ambitious films to ever win the Golden Palm as well, since by the end the gentleness is so pervasive that it’s almost suffocating, blurring out every other emotion, until it finally feels as if there’s not really all that much at stake here, as accommodating as the last two hours might have been.