With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion. Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason. That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works. For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood. Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling. I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional. His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg. I thought that movie was… alright. It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me. I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters. But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters. I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.
Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores. Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband. These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside. They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.
I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation. It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting. This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections. Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son. The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue. The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.
That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me. The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that. The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.” Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made. The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain. Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.
Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters. I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph. Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child. Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout. It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large. I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.
***1/2 out of Five