Shoplifters – What makes a family?

by Felicitas Blanck January 2, 2019
Shoplifters – What makes a family?

(万引き家族 Manbiki Kazoku), 2018, Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

An impressingly unromantic yet endearing story about living under harsh circumstances – criticized in Japan and awarded the Golden Palm in Cannes.

The film starts and ends with a little girl, playing alone on a balcony. This melancholic theme is the underlying theme for “Shoplifters”. We, the audience, watch the daily life of a poor family in their messy home over the course of a year, marked by the change of seasons – and we join their “shopping” sprees consisting of stealing groceries.

The story is relayed to atmospheric, yet not artificial pictures. Sometimes, the camera lingers on the sunlight pouring through a window or on the wrinkles in an old woman’s face, but the filming looks very natural, not stylized. When watching “Shoplifters” it becomes obvious that director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s roots are in documentaries. So the pace of the film is slow, yet it speeds up after the climax.

On a cold Winter’s day, the father Osamu and his son Shota return from a shoplifting tour when they watch an obviously neglected little girl. They take her with them to give her a hot meal, but the family decides against returning her home when they see that she apparently has been abused. From this point on, we get to know the daily life of this little group, which on the face of it seems to be a family.

Stealing even for survival is extremely questionable in Japan

The stealing the film title refers to is crucial for the survival of the family, as their part-time jobs won’t provide enough income and are not steady. Stealing is taken as seriously as any other family would take their source of income. So it seems natural that the kids are helping out just like they would help in a farmers’ family with taking care of livestock. And of course the father teaches them his skills just like any parent would, „I have no other skills I could teach my kids”, as he puts it.

In Japan, “Shoplifters” was met with criticism, as it points out behaviour which violates some of Japan’s innermost principles: honesty, trustworthiness, striving for improvement. It is highly unusual to talk openly about this deception of society.


We see many little details portraying the characters, many glimpses into their everyday lives, but we never get the whole picture. Most scenes are shot from close-up, the few wide angle shots show mostly landscapes outside the nameless city. The movie accordingly keeps knowledge from us: the level of kinship of most characters is never quite clear, just as the structure of the house is never fully revealed. There is only one view showing the house from above, huddled among the skyscrapers surrounding it. How many rooms does it have? How are they laid out and whom do they belong to? The same goes for the messy contents – do the heaps of things in bags, boxes, drawers belong to anyone special? Only the smartphone of the young girl working as a stripper can clearly be contributed to her. The confusing amount of things is another trick to keep the spectator at bay. We are not allowed to come to close, in contradiction to the closeness of the camera work.

And then again, we are drawn into being partners in crime at the shoplifting, drawn more and more into the action. Unusual for a Japanese movie is the rather openly shown affection between the characters, lovers as well as family members, which might stem from the absence of traditional Japanese family principles in a non-traditional family. Kore-eda’s approach to his characters is to see them as very down to earth human beings, who seem just to lead their normal lives right in front of the camera, including sleeping, eating, washing and murmuring words under their breath (which are sometimes difficult to understand).

Striking pictures illustrate the increasing tension

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that this life won’t carry on forever – reality is about to set in. The tipping point is one of the most memorable moments of the film: the view is cut in slices by several overlapping motorway bridges – and suddenly the contrast of bright oranges, falling on the dark grey surface of the highway.

Contains spoilers from now on

From then on, the family breaks apart, or merely is drawn apart by laws and bureaucracy, and the children are handed over to social workers. The self declared family has abducted the children, as we learn later on in the film, but the children themselves would rather stay with their abductors, they say. The movie does not justify abductions – but in the end none of us actually gets to choose our families. The friendships we make as adults and that we choose as a family may prove to be more consistent than the traditional form.

„Shoplifters“ asks what it means to be a family. Do people have to be actually related to each other? Is it the money or the documents which form the bond? Or is it enough just to feel close?

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