Hirokazu Koreeda’s camera grazes upon the mundane. A simple web search of the Japanese director’s — who is frequently compared to the cinematic guru Yasujiro Ozu — filmography presents a storyteller who finds nothing more mesmerising than the simple, the anti-dramatic, and most commonly, the prosaic romanticism of the family unit. Before Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes, Koreeda’s directorial brush coloured the cinematic canvas with works like After the Storm, Like Father Like Son, the heartbreaking Nobody Knows and the meditative Still Walking. The continuity of the ‘family’ in his films is emphasised by the oft-casting of late veteran actress Kirin Kiki as either the mother or grandmother. In this sense, Shoplifters, her last film, becomes a befitting overture to the world of Koreeda’s fictional families.
The story of Shoplifters, however, is not entirely untrue.
In several interviews, Koreeda offers credit to the real family; a news article about a family of shoplifters who would steal fishing rods for a living was the spark which began Koreeda’s journey towards Shoplifters. The director recounts how he was struck with a vivid image of a father-son duo fishing, a scene which though included in the film is only shown towards the end. Rather than confirming the conditions of filial love and duty, the father-son fishing scene becomes the dot upon the question mark which asks: What is it that makes a family?
Delving into the truths of this unorthodox life eventually unfolds the symbiotic relationship between the existence of such a family and the rigid structures of ‘normality’. As the film goes on, Koreeda unspools the thread of warmth which the fictional Shoplifters family members provide to each other. A home can also be a tatami-matted shack occupied by a makeshift family of outcasts and criminals. However, society does not recognise family which is not blood-related and the film presents the struggles at the heart of filial loyalty, the limitations, and expectations of which even a group of outcasts struggle to resist.
In his past films, Koreeda uses the scenery to his advantage. There is the frequently used motif of the Japanese bullet train, gently piercing through the green horizon of a typical Japanese town. Shoplifters shows Koreeda’s love of spatiality in all its glory, but instead of being limited to mise en scène, space is used as a character in the film. The characters have their own fable-like affirmations and the absence of such philosophies in the ‘normal’ world (for e.g. Distance and closeness within the family members is irrelevant to the physical distance between the people in the house. The interior of the structure, in which Grandma is believed to be a lone resident, is hoarded with all sorts of things. Yet, the members move around these objects with ease and flexibility, as shown by Shota when he has to hide from a visitor with Juri — newly christened Lin by the shoplifting family — by his side. While one may read the hoarding as a metaphor for overcompensation, it also serves the purpose of concealment. The impression that the variety of objects belong to the eccentric grandmother who lives by herself is more believable than the idea that six non-biologically related people could be sharing this space. The over presence of the non-living objects paint a picture of isolation and loneliness for the unwitting neighbours. The truth, of course, is far from that.
When Lin is first brought into the house, we see how Koreeda uses clever camerawork to offer perspective. The family members are nearly brushing their knees against each other while eating, but Juri looks considerably far away from the jovial scene. She is not yet part of the family and it takes a sudden act of physical affection, with Nobuyo tightly embracing (almost encasing) Lin, refusing to return her to her abusive biological family, which initiates her as the new member. From that point onwards, Lin is seen closer to the dining table, closer to the family both physically and emotionally.
“Only the crimes tied us together,” the tagline of the film (as shown in the press kit), is an elementary summation of the story. On one hand, it affirms that the story is about people who are criminals. On the other, there is a connection between the members of this unit. Though it is an abnormal connection, it is a bond nonetheless, and this becomes the driving force of the film.
Once Lin is renamed and officially taken in by the family, we begin to see the layers and the seams at which they are held together. There is an emphasis on cramped and enclosed spaces, and while that might signify emotional closeness as written above, it can also shine a light on the marginalisation of the people involved. Each character interacts with this lack of space in their own way, carving out a distinct picture of what is it that pushes them away from ‘normal’ society.
Apart from their usual shoplifting, the family has their own jobs, a sliver of normality required to allow their real selves to roam freely. Osamu works as a day labourer, Nobuyo works at a laundry service, Aki works at a hostess club, while Hatsue, the elderly woman of the house, provides major support to the family through her dead husband’s pension. At the construction site where Osamu works, Koreeda presents shots which highlight Osamu’s passive stance. Unlike the flexibility and effortless choreography with which he navigates his way around stores, knowing exactly when to cover for Shota so the boy can steal something, the day-labourer Osamu is stiff and stoic. He does the routine warmup exercises with the other workers in a wide warehouse area, but he is only a shell of who he is with his family. When he is cramped into the lift with the other workers, he can barely move. This is in contrast with the atmosphere in the house, where despite the claustrophobic space, Osamu can move about freely.
Osamu’s comfort space is one which operates on illusion. While he insists Shota call him ‘father’ the young boy refuses. He explains ‘not yet’ and Osamu is left hanging by the promise of terms and conditions applying to filial love. To be called ‘father’ is clearly something he desires. At the construction site, he walks into a room made of nothing but cement and rubble and pretends it is his apartment. He calls for Shota like a father calling for a son after a long day at work. Later we see Osamu wistfully glancing at a father-son duo playing football out in the yard. Apart from Hatsue, the other members’ presence in the house is a secret. This prevents Osamu and Shota from playing out in the open like the other father-son duo. Their real identity, one of a family of criminals, restricts them to the indoors. Osamu is seen playing with a plastic bag inside the house like it is a football while Aki looks on in amusement.
It is here that a crucial conversation takes place. Aki asks Osamu how he is connected to Nobuyo. This is important as the audience understands that the family is not completely open with each other. Osamu is hesitant with his response and instead asks: ‘How do you think we’re connected?’ To which Aki replies: money. ‘Normally’ she adds and Osamu concludes the dialogue by saying, ‘But we’re not normal.’
That secrets and concealment, veils and unknown past can exist even when one is so physically close to another person in such a house is perhaps a key element of the film. Aki works at a hostess club, another space operating on illusion. We see the young girl talking to her other female colleagues like they could be chatting about the weather. Aki talks to her customer like she is talking to a friend but the setup of the place, convenient for the customers alone, cannot provide the warmth that she receives by embracing Hatsue. Much later, Aki asks her customer if they can move to the ‘chat room’, a more personal space where the customers can physically meet the hostess. There are options available, simple acts of intimacy like cuddling and putting one’s head on the other’s lap. We see a break in the barrier of inauthenticity and professionalism when after the set time for the interaction ends, Aki lunges in for a hug. ‘It’s warm’ she says, almost a parody of the real warmth and intimacy that takes place when Osamu and Nobuyo have sex while home alone. Both spaces are small and provide limitations upon the time a couple can spend together, what with Shota and Lin returning home before Osamu and Nobuyo can have sex again. But it is not time and physical space alone which makes a relationship. Money too, since Aki is being paid for her services, is not the answer, and she falls short of the bond that Osamu and Nobuyo have.
The theme of love, duty and obligation echoes within the walls of the shoplifters’ house. In a poignant scene, Nobuyo sits on the porch and wraps her arms around Lin and says, ‘If they really loved you, they would not hit you’. This is moments after the two take a bath together and compare the burn marks on their arms. We are given a glimpse into Nobuyo’s abusive past and we understand that although she is a criminal, Nobuyo is not immune from empathy. It is not the name of a relationship alone, but the act which completes it.
The porch is also the stage to a heartwarming scene, one where the family stretch their necks to see the fireworks, hidden by the looming towers of the apartment before them. ‘You can hear them’, and they enjoy the fireworks by sound alone, their face full of marvel as if they are watching the real thing. This almost, this nearness to the real, underlines the family’s love and fears, and is the driving force of what they mean to each other.
Koreeda finally allows the family to leave the dampness of the tatami matted house. The red bullet train carries our quasi-family towards the beach, and when seen like this, we see how authentic they look. Osamu continues to call himself ‘dad’ to Shota, even having a playful verbal exchange about puberty with the young boy. Meanwhile Nobuyo and Hatsue watch from afar, and Nobuyo says, ‘It’s better to choose your own family.’ Hatsue’s response is where we see the cloud filling up the silver lining: If only not to have expectations. While she says this, moments later she watches Nobuyo join the family and play with the waves, mouthing a voiceless ‘Thank you’. The next day, Hatsue dies and the crux of the family falls apart.
Hatsue now takes up space in the house but as a corpse. They manage to find a place for her, but it is one which disturbs the tempo of the family. ‘It’s always been five in our family’ Osamu announces and the bubble has broken. A real family would have a legacy, ancestral rites and remembrance, but the Shibatas are a makeshift family. They adjust according to their needs and their survival, refusing to look back. Just like the fish pond in the yard which has dried up and been forgotten, Hatsue too is buried. She occupies a limbo state of space, one which signifies her absence with her very presence.
The dichotomy of absence/presence becomes Shota’s central coping mechanism. As we learn early on in the film, Shota is rescued from a car by Osamu. Shota himself seems to idolise Osamu to an extent, and there is a tone of self-fulfilment when he repeats the fable-like statements Osamu teaches him. ‘Only kids who can’t study at home go to school’, ‘Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone yet’. He uses the same logic to cope with Hatsue’s death, by affirming to Nobuyo that since it is ‘Grandma’s’ money, it is not stealing. There is a double-sided crudeness to this statement, as Shota himself does not realise that they have not reported the death so as to continue receiving her pension. It reverses the family’s previous philosophies, which operate not on the nature of the relation, but the act.
Shota’s bubble breaks when he sees Osamu break into a car. The location of their crime is not a store, where things do not belong to people ‘yet’. When questioning Osamu’s corruption of their principle of not stealing ‘belongings’, Osamu answers back with a nonchalant ‘So what?’ The car robbery scene mocks a previous scene where Shota and Osamu play in the parking lot. In that scene, Shota talks to Osamu about a children’s book he has read about a school of fish who can only fight against the big bad shark when they are together, thus offering the illusion of being another big fish. Metaphorically the story of Swimmy reflects the very fabric of the Shibatas. The robbery scene disrupts this fabric of trust and triggers Shota’s rebellion, leading to his falling into the unknown (he jumps from the bridge they usually cross after stealing) and the family’s arrest.
The final interrogation scene is Koreeda finally completing the big, intricate puzzle. Shota, it turns out, is Osamu’s real name. He is on-the-run with Nobuyo, whose abusive ex-husband the two murdered and buried. It is literal blood which connects the two, the spilling of it, answering Aki’s ominous question.
Unable to understand the nuance lying below the deviant surface, the detectives fill in the blanks of the Shibatas story. Nobuyo cannot have children, which they reason as the motive behind her kidnapping Lin and Shota. ‘What did they call you?’, the female detective provokes Nobuyo, who simply breaks down. None of the kids have ever called her ‘mother’.
Early on we find out that Aki and Hatsue are somehow related. Aki is the biological granddaughter of Hatsue’s dead husband, who left her for another woman and gave birth to Aki’s father. While working, Aki uses the name Sayaka, which is her sister’s name. Hatsue is in touch with Aki’s family, who let her in their house each time due to guilt. After each visit, they give Hatsue money. During the interrogation scene, Aki learns of this fact and is betrayed. She was convinced that her relationship with Hatsue was genuine, but the act of payment degrades her presence in Hatsue’s life to that of something like a ransom.
The detectives, along with the media, try to read between the lines by placing the Shibatas against the traditional order of family. ‘Children need their mothers’, the female detective tells Nobuyo, Lin’s biological ties to her parents presumed to be sufficient despite their abusive behaviour. The media sums up the Shibatas life as one of many cases of pension fraud in Japan. There is an air of debauchery surrounding the house. ‘One does not know what they did inside the house’ as one reporter says.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes towards the end, Shota sits on the bus which drives him away from Osamu and towards the foster care he now lives at. This is after a day of performing father-son rituals, rituals which take place after both Osamu and Shota have come clean to each other about their intentions. Shota finds out, through a visit to Nobuyo in prison, that he was rescued from a pachinko parlor. He is also given the details, including the colour of the car and the car plate number, signifying his importance to Nobuyo and Osamu beyond just being a shoplifting companion. Osamu is clearly heartbroken as he is aware that he has lost his chance at becoming a father. Ironically, the two finally play out in the open, in the dark when the snow starts falling. It is the closest they can get to what Osamu had daydreamed months ago.
Shota sits on the bus and mouths ‘father’ echoing Hatsue on the beach, while Osamu runs after the bus in one last act of desperation. Koreeda elaborates upon this in an interview with Sight and Sound.
‘It’s when he lets go, when he’s said that he’s no longer the dad – maybe that’s when he becomes the father. The family isn’t quite a real family until they’ve broken up; once they’re apart, they become more of a family.’
Absence and presence are often used to define the meaning and tangibility of space. Rather than being placed as opposites, however, Koreeda tells this story of a family of criminals to provide the answer: it is the lack of expectations coupled with the uninvited gratefulness, the act of choosing who to love working independently against the unrestrained act of love, it is both absence and presence which make a family.
Author: Kunzes Goba
Kunzes Goba is a 26-year-old freelance writer based in Gurugram and Ladakh. She has done her M.A in Creative Writing (Prose Fiction) from the University of East Anglia in England.