Shoplifters

November 30, 2018
Shoplifters...the family photo

Everyone knows George Santayana’s famous line: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. This is axiomatic, most especially in an age when attention spans are shrinking to the size of a mobile phone screen. The philosopher’s second-most-popular quotation is rather more problematic. When Santayana wrote: “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces” he probably didn’t intend it as something to put on greeting cards and fridge magnets.

If the family is a natural masterpiece it is almost always a flawed masterpiece. Social engineers and futurologists have long predicted the demise of the family but it remains the most basic unit of social organisation. We are grossly sentimental about the concept, which seems nothing less than a human right. We are protective of our own families, and we pity those poor souls who don’t have one.

We tend to ignore the fact that almost everyone has problems with their family. Sometimes those problems are so severe they have a crippling effect on an individual personality.

For Japanese director, Hirozaki Koreeda, the family is the core subject of all his films, although these families are rarely without their problems. In Shoplifters, which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he presents us with an apparently happy family who happen to be dirt poor and addicted to petty crime.

We meet Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), as they’re stealing necessary groceries from a small supermarket. There’s a certain skill involved. It’s a bonding experience, and Osamu couldn’t be prouder if Shota had just topped an exam. On the way home they find a little girl in tears who has been left alone by her parents. They feed her a couple of croquettes, and decide to take her back to their house.

When they reach their tiny, squalid hovel, we meet the rest of the family: Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), her sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and grandma (Kirin Kiki). The women make much of the little girl, who is called Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), seeing it as perfectly natural that Osamu should have brought her back for dinner. When grandma looks at the child she finds she’s covered in burn marks and scars. Their worst suspicions are confirmed when they try to take Yuri back to her house, only to hear the parents yelling at each other and saying how neither of them wanted the girl.

They decide instantly to keep Yuri. They reason that it’s not kidnapping because they’re not asking for a ransom, and the parents were abusers. They assume (correctly) that she won’t even be reported as missing. We know this is wrong, but our sympathies are entirely with Osamu and his family.

Money gets progressively tighter when Osamu gets injured on his construction job and can’t claim compensation, and Nobuyo loses her laundry work. The household income depends on grandma’s pension, and possibly the money that Aki makes working a peep show, where she flashes her boobs at anonymous clients on the other side of a glass screen.

Little by little we begin to understand the truth about this unorthodox family. Nobody seems to be actually related to each other by blood. It’s a makeshift affair whereby a group of outsiders have come together for mutual support. They are as closely connected as any genuine family, looking out for each other, and even taking a trip to the beach. It’s a feat of human bricolage, in which family members have been picked up, like Yuri, and incorporated into the picture.

We know this precarious arrangement is going to come unstuck. When it does, a raft of dark and dirty secrets will be revealed as the forces of law and order deal with this social aberration. We can see how far over-the-line Osamu and his family have gone, but we understand what the police and social workers don’t: that this group was held together not by crime, but by strong emotional bonds.

By the end of the film Koreeda has forced us to question all of our ingrained beliefs and assumptions about what consititutes a family. It’s often said that one can’t choose one’s family but this is precisely what Osamu and the others have done. If they chose on behalf of the children it was because they felt certain they could offer them a better, happier life, albeit a life of crime.

When Osamu is asked how he could teach the boy to steal, he replies, in all sincerity: “I didn’t have anything else to teach him.”

There’s a terrible pragmatism in this statement. For those who are resigned to living in an underclass with no chance of escape, or advancing their social prospects, crime is the obvious way of making ends meet. Theft becomes normalised. For Osamu it was something he could practice with the same skill, care and dedication that the Japanese bring to even the most mundane tasks. His goal was no different to that of any father throughout the ages: to secure the health and happiness of his family – in this case a group that had no legal status, created and embraced by the heart.

Shoplifters
Written & directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki
Japan, rated M, 121 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 December, 2018