Film Review: Shoplifters by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Julian Garcia
Hirokazu Kore-eda, among the most prolific Japanese filmmakers of the new millennium, not to mention also one of the best, finally won an award on the national stage spotlighting his enormous talent as a compassionate chronicler of individuals who are spiritually down and out. With Shoplifters (2018) winning the 2018 Palme D’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival, it joins the ranks of films that have the prestigious honor, including Taxi Driver (1976), M*A*S*H (1970), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). For viewers that are familiar with Kore-eda’s rich filmography, however, Shoplifters seems to stand among his worst efforts—a rather mawkish, overly self-conscious, visually plain and philosophically shallow entry into what I consider his profoundly-moving body of work.
Forgive my confusing back-and-forth between praise for Kore-eda and criticism for Shoplifters. I am conflicted by the way the film made me feel—and not as if that were a triumph to be exalted. It is more a reaction to the constant praise that the movie has garnered by the international film community that seemed content to ignore his past films, like Still Walking and Our Little Sister, in an effort to praise weaker films like Shoplifters. In his past films, the poetry of gentility and compassion found its way in Kore-eda’s light touches, both narratively and visually. The characters moved mountains and travelled valleys to reach the depth of understanding and kindness for the people that populated his films, but that understanding found its way in the elemental beauty of the everyday, with every cherry blossom and gust of wind tickling our faces, our eyes, our hair. In Shoplifters, that kindness does not feel like a connection to be made with other people, so much as it is another film to be shown, a lesson to be taught, another point to be lectured on.
What this movie is about is difficult to describe in just a few words because Kore-eda’s method is to weave many characters, many moods, and many impressions into a tapestry of circumstances and significant events. To put it simply, a “family” of very low income individuals are left behind altogether by Japanese society, unable to pay medical bills, afford proper burials, or send their “kids” to school. To keep afloat, they steal from supermarkets and shops. Their justification is that the goods they steal do not belong to anyone yet, nor are they hurting the supermarkets and stores in doing so.
On the way home from one such heist, the “father,” Shibata, and his “son,” Shota, stumble across a young girl named Yuri, whom they take with them when they realize she is far from home. Upon trying to take her back to her rightful parents, they find that her household is not one of kindness but one of abuse and ignorance, leaving them no choice but to return with her to their den and raise her as a thief with a heart of gold.
The film’s problems are laid out in the initial scenes; namely that Kore-eda is making an action-oriented and plotted film, rather than making one of introspection and experience. Kore-eda excels at creating depth and reflection, so his abilities are restricted with the content and form in Shoplifters. There is no poetry in the action, no beauty in the framing, nothing that pushes him to the forefront of today’s cinematic masters. It is as if he picked this film out specifically and told himself that there will not be one beautiful shot in the whole of this film; it will be ugly, plain, and dirty–his usual lyricism lost in these surroundings. Whether miles away in an abandoned car which becomes Shota’s place of peace, or inside the home itself, none of the images reflect the warmth, frustration or misguided choices that Kore-eda is trying to convey. The story’s message and dynamic he is attempting to establish between the family members fails. The images do not feel like extensions of Kore-eda’s poetic eye or like the visual paintings of the characters’ inner lives in this film. Instead they feel like plain ol’ pictures that capture the action in the most competent and least artful of ways.
Shoplifters thus becomes the most affected and artificial of all his films. Sequences in his previous films, like the bike ride through the blossoming cherry trees on the first day of spring that conveyed new beginnings in Our Little Sister, are so beautiful they make the knees in my brain tremble when I recall or reflect upon them. In Shoplifters, they just feel like sequences in a movie, afflicted with a self-awareness of the intentions in the wistfulness and playful abandon they are trying to evoke. The camera rolls on the actors during supposedly candid moments, but unfortunately, the audience becomes aware that Kore-eda is just capturing a candid moment for this movie, rather than filming the layer underneath the consciousness of the characters he is trying to document.
One such scene involves the “mother,” Nobuho, having a burping contest with Shota. Instead of crossing a boundary and breaking down the borders that separate them from sharing a laugh, it feels almost as if Kore-eda sketched a situation in which the tagline to the scene might have been “fun” or “whimsical” and then began filming the actors. Another scene contains a similar issue with the “grandmother,” Hatsue, as she looks on with a mixture of joy and woe as she gazes upon her family from afar while they play on the beach. Once again, the film is very aware of the spell it is trying to cast with a scene like this—instead of merely witnessing a moment of peace between these family members, we are beholden to an emotional agenda that Kore-eda tries to lure us into.
This unbearable self-awareness not only makes itself evident in the images but in the dialogue as well. Many of the scenes and conversations in the film end up more like simplistic punchlines to philosophical quandaries rather than explorations of the consciousness of the people Kore-eda examines. Early on, it is made clear that each of the members of the family are not biological, that instead they fell in and stuck together through poverty. After several scenes with Yuri, Nobuyo asks Hatsue, “Do you think...she chose us?” The surprise of this question does not feel palpable but plotted, which raises the obvious questions of being able to choose your own family. The narrative could have handled this without such ponderous musings of the characters. It comes across as lecture-like, rather than a genuine situation to be examined from the inside. The characters form to create pins on a board that point to the overall lesson that the film tries to impart on us, rather than flesh and blood beings with thoughts and opinions about what it means to create your family from existing parts.
As always, Kore-eda makes the case for a more kind-hearted, compassionate cinema, and his attempts are valiant in Shoplifters. In the end, however, the results are unsatisfying. The sweet moments of the film are marred by an overreaching emotional agenda, one stripped of experience and filtered through an aesthetic that is plain, obvious, affected. Films about criminals who are, deep down, kind-hearted people are a dime a dozen and sadly, Kore-eda does nothing to differentiate his well-meaning and ultimately disappointing film.
— Julian Garcia is a Film Correspondent for Siblíní Journal. Read more of his work here.