In this article, there will be no analysis of the cinematographic techniques, tropes, camera angles or tone of the film, even though it is what I love doing most. Instead, I will try to give you a sneak peek into the more real, less tourist gaze-y side of Japan. This film shows Japan in the raw. It doesn’t sensationalize the Japanese society and it does not try to fit it into an international context. Ironically the honesty is what makes many people actually relate to the story.
I would like to give a spoiler alert before you start reading, as I will be referring to some key moments of the story.
IMDB shortly but concisely describes Shoplifters as being “A family of small-time crooks [who] take in a child they find outside in the cold.” The film is slow-paced because the spotlight is on the relationships between the characters. The film explores the possible superiority of bond over blood, only to hit the viewer with a bleak resolution of conflict. In the end, everyone looks out for themselves and the viewer is left pondering: Was any part of their bond real? When push comes to shove the adults look out for themselves, which in return leaves the children to have their first reality check: things don’t last forever and people, even the closest to you, can grossly disappoint any expectations. For us as, as a western audience it shares a very good lesson about the ephemerality of relationships
Shoplifters is presenting us a Frankenfamily (in the style of Frankenfood). Just as Frankenstein’s monster was made out of parts that belonged to deceased people, their family is composed of people that were part of other dysfunctional families. The film begins by presenting the viewer their morally corrupt livelihood. Just a few minutes into the story and we see the main couple take a freezing little girl from her mentally and physically abusing family and integrating her in their group. The film shows how the trade of stealing is passed down from father/mother to son to little sister. We see a heartwarming relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter. To a certain extent, everyone’s reason for their living situation is given. All of them have been wronged by the society. We sympathize with all the members, because they are just like any of us. The difference is that life has dealt them terrible cards.
By the end of the film, we learn that the adults have taken the children in their care from unfulfilling, but otherwise better-off families. However, even this is not completely true. The viewer is left with many unanswered questions and many gaps to fill.
It gives us a hard dilemma. We have seen the relationship between the members. It is genuine and on top of everything healthy, but how can we justify this over the stealing? Are they really despicable acts or is this just the effect of poverty? And can poverty justify burying your grandma in the backyard after she died of natural causes just to be able to keep her house and her pension? But if the alternative is being thrown in the street with nowhere to go and two small children, is it really that bad? The family lives in a ruthless society that does not give them a fighting chance and pushes them towards a morally corrupt living.
Overall I full-heartedly recommend this film. It pushes the viewer out of the comfort zone and hopefully makes them reflect on the fact that the world we live in is in a grey area. There are blind spots that we do not know how to deal with, but this is a good point to start thinking about them.