What makes a family real? Is it genes? Are blood relatives the only real kind of family? Or is family something that is chosen, committed to and reaffirmed every day? Can family begin as a matter of convenience, even a decision taken for economic reasons, can it be based on a lie – and then change into something else when you’re not paying attention?
In many ways, Shoplifters is a typical Kore-eda film. It has vast amounts of empathy for its characters, it is perceptive yet gentle in its depiction of them, it features perfect performances by child actors. It also focuses on family, perhaps the theme that Kore-eda returns to most, in ways that recall his earlier films Like Father, Like Son and Nobody Knows: echoing motifs of the former but not shying away from the more tragic aspects of the latter. It starts with poverty – we meet the middle-aged Osamu and the boy Shota as the two steal food from a supermarket, and it’s clear that they’ve done this many times before: they are an accomplished team when it comes to getting away with it. They’re not doing it for fun or any nefarious reasons: they simply wouldn’t be able to afford the food the family needs.
The story then gives us more than a hint of child abuse, as the two discover a young girl in the cold, sitting on a balcony while her parents audibly fight inside. They take the girl, Yuri, home with them where they discover that she is covered with bruises and scars and not too eager to return to her parents. Osamu is told by his wife, Nobuyo, that what he has done is in effect commit child abduction, but he does not have the heart to return Yuri to her home. He makes her part of his family, giving her a new name, and even urges the reluctant, envious Shota to see and treat her as his sister.
The audience is asked to consider whether the Shibatas could be a better family to Yuri than her biological parents; we only see the latter fairly late in the film, but it is clear that Yuri hasn’t been getting much affection. The bruises and old burns on her arms hint at worse than that. The Shibatas meanwhile are small-time criminals, they are slovenly and they squabble constantly – but they are affectionate, and generous in extending this affection to the new family member.
This is where I will be veering into spoiler territory, so those who want to remain unspoiled: if you like Kore-eda, make sure to see Shoplifters (and if you don’t know Kore-eda, well, make sure to see Shoplifters). Now get out of here, shoo. For everyone else, here goes: we are some way into the film when we realise that out of the members of the Shibata family, only two are actually related. The supposed parents, offspring and siblings? They aren’t. They live together as a family because they choose to. More than that, they originally came together because, quite literally, they couldn’t afford not to.
Kore-eda has affection for the Shibatas, but he doesn’t sentimentalise them or their motivations for getting together. At the same time, he doesn’t look at biological family – what some people might call ‘real family’ – through a sentimental lens either. Osamu’s taking of Yuri, and his keeping her, is a criminal act, as much as his shoplifting sprees with Shota, but we see the Shibatas going through the daily act of being a family, of acting out their bonds and reinforcing them. They don’t always know how best to do so, but how is this any different from any biological family?
Like The Third Murder, Kore-eda’s film preceding this one, Shoplifters ends with the legal system reestablishing some sort of order, but it remains questionable whether the law can do what is just, what is right. It sides with biology, determining who is a family and who isn’t – but it cannot erase the time we have spent with a group of people who formed a family in spite of biology. And when Yuri again finds herself alone on that balcony, it is difficult not to think that she is looking out hoping to catch a glimpse of her family.