Orson Welles has made films with his right hand and films with his left hand,” Francois Truffaut once wrote. “In the right-handed films, there is always snow, and in the left-handed ones there are always gunshots.”
By a similar token, one might say that Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made films with his head and films with his heart. The “head” films (which would include Maborosi, Still Walking, and The Third Murder) tend to be unsparing in their scrutiny of characters and the social codes they live by, while the “heart” films (which would include After Life, Air Doll, and I Wish) tend to be more sentimental, focusing on growth and reconciliation. Yet the distinction between Kore-eda’s two sides isn’t as hard and fast as it is with Welles. One reason why Nobody Knows, Our Little Sister, and Like Father, Like Son are such powerful films is that they begin as “heart” films and move unexpectedly into “head” territory. Some of the best Japanese movies of the 21st century, they draw you in with their sympathetic character portraits, then surprise you with their complex insights about the difficulties of family relationships. (In contrast, Kore-eda’s Hana and After the Storm start out tough and then go soft, which is why I consider them minor works.)
With Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kore-eda strikes a balance between the two sides of his creative persona, with neither one overwhelming the other. Shoplifters alternates between tender and sobering observations, and the frequent alternations keep the movie unpredictable. Kore-eda doesn’t just change the emotional register from scene to scene, but within individual scenes; he also manages these shifts so gracefully that they never feel jarring. When he moves from a sentimental mood to a stark one, the effect is like being woken with a splash of cold water; yet when Kore-eda transitions the other way, it feels like he’s retreating from his own insights. These moments of retreat, which make Shoplifters an occasionally frustrating experience, speak to Kore-eda’s worst tendency as a filmmaker—his Spielbergian desire to reassure, if not placate, his audience in spite of the bitter truths he has to share with them. Thankfully these moments aren’t fatally distracting, as Kore-eda’s head is around to keep his heart in check.
Shoplifters tells the story of a surrogate family scraping together an existence in Tokyo through means both legal and illegal. The de facto patriarch, Osamu (Kore-eda regular Lily Franky), works odd jobs; his partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), irons clothes at a commercial laundry. They live with an elderly woman, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and her granddaughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), along with a boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), who appears to be around ten years old. The elderly woman brings in money through her pension checks and by milking her grown daughter for cash, while the granddaughter works at an erotic peep show booth. Even taken together, these sources of income aren’t enough to keep this group afloat, and so Osamu and Shota steal food from local supermarkets to feed everyone. The film, in fact, starts with a scene of them shoplifting; Kore-eda presents their smuggling in fascinating detail, showing how the two have gotten their routine down to a science. Already the film achieves a balance between toughness and sentimentality, as one recognizes the winning camaraderie between the grown man and the boy while intuiting the dire conditions that have forced them to steal.
Later that evening, the family decides to take in a five-year-old girl named Juri, who lives in their neighborhood with parents who are alternately abusive and neglectful. The group’s first dinner with Juri exudes warmth and a sense of interpersonal connection, with the various members taking protective interest in the little girl. (In a nice touch, Hatsue blows on Juri’s food to keep it from burning the girl’s mouth.) Kore-eda encourages viewers to disregard the fact that the family has just kidnapped a child—their behavior towards her is so loving that one excuses their crime, much like one forgives Osamu for having taught a boy to steal since their efforts keep several kind people from starving. It complicates matters somewhat that neither Juri nor Shota comes across as excessively cute. Kore-eda, one of the best directors of children in cinema, renders the characters as complex as the adults; one sees in their guarded behavior how poverty has made them prematurely tough, even if they’re too young to realize how tough they are. (Note how Kore-eda allows his child actors to appear fixated by small details and look away from the other players—with this strategy, he captures the enigmatic quality of children that most other filmmakers seldom bother to consider.)
Shoplifters also relates (like Nobody Knows before it) how children acclimate to the worst situations. In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, Shota and Juri, walking home from a shoplifting expedition (the little girl quickly learns to steal just like the rest of the family), pass two other children on their way home from school. Shota explains to his surrogate sister that school is only for kids who can’t study at home—likely a lie he’s heard from one of his “parents.” The unassuming way with which the boy reiterates the lie shows the extent to which he’s been manipulated by the adults in his life, and it points to the moral questionability of their behavior. Yet for much of the film, Kore-eda undercuts this moral complexity by making the parents seem like children themselves. Their clever responses to poverty sometimes suggest children’s games, and their desire for familial bonds seems to exceed that of the kids they’re raising. (Osamu’s insistence that Shota call him “Dad” is certainly the film’s most mawkish motif.) If anything, the characters are too likable; Kore-eda renders them so sympathetic—and the culture they inhabit so cruel—that one can overlook their transgressions.
The film implies that the characters wouldn’t have to break the law if life under late capitalism were more equitable, and Kore-eda’s reminders of everyday inequity throw the family’s kindness into sharp relief. In a pivotal scene, Nobuyo’s boss at the laundry takes Nobuyo and a coworker aside and informs them they must decide between themselves which one will agree to be laid off. In another, Aki cuddles with one of her customers at the peep show after she intuits that he’s having a bad day—her behavior seems altruistic until she interrupts the cuddling session because the man has paid for only so many minutes of intimacy. This scene exemplifies the push-pull quality of Shoplifters, presenting an almost trite observation about the need for human connection in an unfeeling world, then following it up with a stinging insight of how even those who feel that need the strongest have been conditioned to think of themselves first. I think the film would have been stronger, though, if the sweet and sour details weren’t so evenly dispersed. Kore-eda is at his best when he’s suppressing his sentimentality, not when he’s indulging it, but like his characters, fans of this inspired filmmaker must learn to take the good with the bad. v