Let me start by saying that Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters is one that would be diminished by the spoilers that follow as no one in the film is who they seem. Their relationships and motivations become increasingly troubled, fraught, and exposed as the movie progresses. We are left with more and more quandaries—people both good and bad, helpful and cruel, well-meaning and manipulative, tender and heartless. Yet even for all its “reveals,” the movie raises more questions than it answers.
One question at the core of Shoplifters is “What makes us family?” By the time a policewoman lectures Nobuyo, the de facto “mother” of the clan in Shoplifters, that she cannot consider herself a mother unless she has carried life in her womb, we cringe, knowing how wrong she is. We have seen birthmothers who, at best, show no interest in their children’s welfare and, at worst abuse, them. One child in the family, pre-teen Shota, was rescued from a car outside a pachinko parlor where his parents were gambling. Another, four-year-old Juri, was lifted off of a winter balcony where she had been warehoused in the cold, underdressed and underfed. A third, Aki, was less favored than her younger sister and let run away to earn a living by working in a sex-shop where she mock masturbates for or cuddles with customers by paid minutes.
The movie also asks us to consider the legacy parents leave their children. Juri and Shota (and probably Aki) have inherited a legacy of abandonment and abuse from their birth parents. In their new family, Shota and Juri’s “father,” Osamu, teaches them to live by shoplifting. He tries to set it into a moral framework by saying, “Goods don’t really belong to anyone until they’re bought,” but Shota exposes his duplicity as Osamu also steals from private cars in which the goods certainly do have owners (Shota, himself, taken from a car by Osamu, has every right to wonder whether he was stolen or rescued as do we.) At the end of the movie, an officer asks Osamu, “Why did you teach your kids to steal?” He puzzles for a moment and then replies, “It was the only thing I knew how to teach them.” This isn’t wholly true. He tries to get pre-teen Shota to call him dad and to welcome little Juri as a sister, talks to him about his budding sexuality, and shows him affection—but up to a point. When it looks as though Shota will expose the web of lies the family has constructed after he is injured in a fall, Osamu plans for the whole family to sneak away in the night and abandon him. That is a dark moment in the film. (Yet he must not wholly have been a monster as Shota’s final act in the film is to look back at Osamu’s vanishing form from a bus window and whisper, “Daddy.”) In a bath scene, little Juri and Nobuyo bond over their shared scars, both gotten from hot irons. Nobuyo claims hers are from her work in a laundry, but they could just as easily be from her abusive former husband, whom we later learn she murdered. They touch each other’s scars tenderly. (In contrast, after Juri is returned to her mom, she sees a wound on her face where she has been punched. When Juri reaches out to touch it, her mother snarls at her to go away and leave her alone. No bonding there…)
Equally relevant, the movie asks, is what duty do children have to their parents? Hatsue, the “grandma” of the family has taken them all in, letting them live off of her social security, because she doesn’t want to die alone. Her own husband had left her for another woman, and her son wants nothing to do with her. When she dies, Nobuyo and Osamu don’t give a proper funeral, but bury her secretly under the floorboards of the house so that they can keep withdrawing her social security benefits. We see Juri returned to her mother as the police don’t realize that she is abusive. We wish for Juri to be stolen again and can imagine her running away as soon as she is able. Near the end of the film when Shota is given information on how to track down his birth parents, we half-wish he won’t, suspecting that they weren’t that attentive to begin with and probably have moved on and will not welcome his return.
Yet in the movie’s makeshift family, we do see affection, even if it is often rough or distorted. Hatsue feels affinity for both Aki and Juri. She snuggles and pets them and inquires after their mood. She feeds Juri bits of food like Juri’s own dead grandmother did (apparently the only person until then who showed her any affection). After Hatsue’s death, Aki lovingly brushes her hair (before the family buries her under the house!) Nobuyo is gruff with, but clearly loves her partner-in-crime / “husband” Osamu. She is warm to Aki, Shota, and Juri. She teases but also looks out for Hatsue whose money and home she is using. Aki bonds with customer number four at her workplace, a young man whom she learns hits himself in frustration as she does. In the cuddle room, she begins her talk with him on the work-clock, but when it goes off, she continues to caress and comfort him. Later, she mentions to Hatsue that he may be a future boyfriend. (Not ideal, perhaps, a relationship with a client from a sex shop, but one has come to feel that damage needs repair wherever it can be found…) Thus, these relationships are complicated and utilitarian, but not without warmth. Even at the end of the movie, Nobuyo takes all of the legal responsibility for the kidnapping of the children, the disposal of Hatsue’s body, and the crime of collecting her social security checks, letting Osamu, who already has a criminal record and thus would have been given a harsher sentence, go free. She is the one who tells Shota how he can find his real parents if he chooses to. We learn during her interrogation that she was unable to have children herself. Perhaps, the cop suggests, that is why she took other people’s children. Perhaps.
The movie also examines apologies. When she makes a mistake in her new family, Juri repeats “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” many times like an incantation. She doesn’t have anything to be that sorry about. We suspect she had to do this to appease her violent mother. Indeed, when Nobuyo says she will buy Juri some new clothes, instead of looking pleased, Juri looks alarmed and asks “Will you hurt me if you do?” Apparently, her mother used this ploy to get her to come close to her when she was angry with her. Near the end of the film, when Osamu is spending what might be his final night with Shota, Shota asks if he really would have abandoned him. We all know Osamu’s shamed silence means “yes.” When he whispers, “I’m sorry,” we sense he truly is. Nobuyo gets Osamu to bring Shota to visit her in jail. Once he is there, she reveals where he was stolen from a car, what kind of car it was, and where the license plate was from. Osamu looks pained and accuses her of tricking him. Tellingly, Nobuyo does not apologize, apparently wanting an end to the fictions in which they operated.
The movie also asks us to think about the spaces we inhabit. Hatsue’s tiny house sits amidst anonymous apartment buildings. A real estate agent keeps visiting her to try to get her to give up her small property so that it too can be renovated, but even though she needs money, she refuses. It isn’t clear if this is due to genuine affection for the place or to sheer cussedness, but the effect is to preserve a tiny slice of “old Japan,” a traditional house with tatami floors and sliding screen doors a bamboo garden and a filled-in carp pond in the middle of an otherwise urban zone.
Inside, the house is a hoarder’s paradise, cluttered with the belongings of six people. The family sleeps in piles of bodies, sharing space and body heat like puppies. It’s messy, dirty, and chaotic, yet for all that, a refuge from the hostile exterior. Nobuyo and Osamu can relax after their exploitative workday, the former as a piece laundress and the latter as a construction day-laborer. Osamu and Shota can return with all of their stolen booty like pirates to their hidden lair.
Shota also has his own private retreat in an abandoned car near the house, oddly echoing the car from which he, himself, was taken. He goes there to work on mysterious boy-projects, sanding and sharpening an object we never find out the use of.
Hatsue visits her son’s home periodically for financial handouts. It is clean and modern, but not, we sense, warm. Her son and his wife are perfectly happy to have lost contact with their daughter Aki (who is actually living with Hatsue), not even inquiring where she is (“abroad, we think,” they say when Hatsue probes).
Before she was kidnapped / rescued by Osamu and Nobuyo, Juri’s world was the balcony where her mother banished her, an outside cell, but also a relatively safe space from the chaos inside her actual home, where we hear her mother being physically abused by her boyfriend/husband. We last see Juri on this balcony, peering out at the world through its cracks and playing with the marbles she must have taken from Shota, the light in which Shota says he sees “the sea” and she claims to be able to see “the universe.”
Thus, the movie seems to suggest that meaning to do well, we do damage. We aren’t all given the same chances and choices in life and making do often has negative consequences. Damaged children have a harder time trusting, which perpetuates damage. Many people are invisible to the system until it is either harder to help them or too late. Urban life creates spaces for anonymity—both a good and bad thing. People can live in its many margins, but they fall farther and farther behind. We come to believe the many lies we tell ourselves. Yet, for all that, alliances and bonds form. Often, people show compassion when they could just walk away. This makeshift family did spend one wonderful day together at the beach before everything goes South, which little Juri draws when she is in child custody. Perhaps even one good day can become a touchpoint memory or a lode star, giving her (and the others who experienced it) both consolation and a future goal. I’ll let you decide whether the movie is unrelentingly bleak. Were Osamu and Nobuyo bad people? Would Shota and Juri have been better off with their “real” parents? Would Aki have been better off with her family? Would Hatsue have been better off had she given up her house and lived alone in an old folk’s home? See what you think.
Devon Balwit’s most recent collection is titled A Brief Way to Identify a Body (Ursus Americanus Press). Her individual poems can be found here as well as in The Cincinnati Review, Fifth Wednesday (on-line), apt, Grist, and Rattle among others. For more on her book and movie reviews, chapbooks, collections and individual works, see her website at: https://pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet
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