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Hirozaku Kore-eda likes to let his films wash over you. With his measured pacing, his predilection for families and the geometry of the Japanese home, and his feather-light touch with framing, Kore-eda is often referred to in press as the “modern Ozu”.  His compatriot Yasujiro Ozu is one of Japan’s most lauded filmmakers whose films, characterised by a delicate use of low-angle shots and an air of quiet tragedy, made him one of cinema’s legendary poets. 

"...the sea takes on a more menacing significance – the onslaught of a reality which Kore-eda’s shoplifters just cannot seem to keep at bay…"

The comparison between Ozu and Kore-eda goes deeper than broad-sweeping generalisations about subject matter, or even cinematic technique. Like Ozu, Kore-eda loves lingering shots of the seaside, shots of waves lapping onto the sand and gradually eroding the shoreline. The difference between these two sea-lovers is a significant one. Ozu leaves his waves to crash onto an empty beach, as in the famous epilogue to his 1949 masterpiece Late Spring, but Kore-eda’s characters get right in there, jumping in and kicking at the surf, dirtying their toes with muddy grains of sand. Kore-eda used this seaside setting to heart-warming effect in 2015’s Our Little Sister, but in 2018’s Shoplifters, winner of the coveted Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the sea takes on a more menacing significance – the onslaught of a reality which Kore-eda’s shoplifters just cannot seem to keep at bay…

Osamu Shibata and his wife Nobuyo live in Tokyo with Osamu’s grandmother and sister and their “son” Shota. Getting by on their grandmother’s pension and various odd jobs, the ramshackle family make ends meet by shoplifting. On their way back from a shoplifting spree, Osamu and Shota come across a little girl named Yuri sitting outside on her balcony alone. They invite her home for dinner, where they notice scars all over her body. Fearful of sending her home to what seems to be an abusive family, Osamu and Nobuyo decide to informally adopt her. Months later, news of her disappearance is broadcast on television. Living in constant fear of discovery, both of Yuri and their criminal activity, the family go about their daily lives as best they can. When Shota begins to question the morality of his family’s existence, the seams which held this patchwork family together loosen and eventually unravel. 

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A true realist, Kore-eda’s shots call to mind the detail of Tolstoy or Dickens’ lengthy paragraphs. The film features innumerable stunning shots, but the shot of the family gathered together on their porch during a firework display is particularly memorable. The shot is dark, and our eyes are drawn to the thin strip of light coming from the family porch. Through the darkness, we can just about see their old-fashioned roof, and the fact that their house stands alone in the middle of a sea of apartment blocks. Shota complains that they can’t see the fireworks, and someone replies “hearing them is enough.” But if “hearing them is enough,” then why are they gathered on the porch? To listen to the fireworks together? Perhaps. In hope that a firework finally might burst just over their heads? Perhaps. But it doesn’t really matter why they’re there. Kore-eda uses the fireworks as one of the most ingenious and inexplicable reasons for a curtain call in recent memory. An almost literal staging of Wilde’s famous phrase, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


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Kore-eda’s actors, including Kore-eda regulars Lily Franky and Kirin Kiki, turn out a revelatory ensemble performance, somehow marrying the magic of a non-professional cast with the discipline of a theatrical troupe. In Shoplifters, Nobuyo constantly expresses her opinion that families are stronger when we choose them ourselves, and Kore-eda’s extraordinary casting proves her point. But Kore-eda’s point about curated families speaks more widely to what we might see as our current global “crisis of family.” In a world in which children are separated from parents by war, poverty and persecution on a daily basis, Shoplifters speaks volumes about the complexity of the family unit and the morality of childrearing. 

To detail the more harrowing moments in the film would be both insensitive and impossible, but what is important to note, is the way in which they peacefully coexist with moments of Tati-esque comedy, namely in the shoplifting sequences. Kore-eda is a filmmaker of rare tonal control, exciting laughter and tears from his audience in equal measure. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from the film is the fact that we are all shoplifters – in different ways, we all take what we can get when we can get it. Whether it’s the men paying for Aki’s school-girl performance in a strip club, or the corrupt construction company causing Osamu to injure his leg, Kore-eda’s shoplifters only steal because they’re constantly being stolen from.

The acclaim Shoplifters has received is more than warranted. Hirozaku Kore-eda has made if not the first, then possibly the most affecting cinematic tragedy of our modern times.