for my dear friend Nobuo Maeda

by J.S. Porter

“…a tangle of lies somehow adds up to a truth and a family of criminals proves closer and more loving than one bound by blood.”  Pico Iyer, A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations.

“Shoplifters” opens with a mesmerizing scene in which a man and a young boy engage in a kind of ballet, or sport, in which each is in sync with and aware of the other’s every move and gesture. Shoplifting as a dance or team sport.  “Father” and “son” happily bring their spoils back to “mother” and “sister”.

This 2018 film, and winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, isn’t postcard Japan.  No cherry blossoms, no Mt. Fuji, no Geisha girls, no tea ceremonies, no high-tech everywhere.  Directed and written by Hirokazu Koreeda, “Shoplifters” is a picture of the Japanese underclass, those who live in crowded rooms near the railway tracks in Tokyo, those who shoplift and work in laundry centres or show their bodies in live chat rooms to get by.  Superbly acted and paced, “Shoplifters” is a poignant story about children and makeshift families.

The young boy Shota taught by his father-figure Osamu to shoplift–all a matter of complicated hand signals and body language—tells his fellow-thief the story of “Swimmy,” how Little Fish band together to survive the perils of Big Fish and the Ocean.  And that’s what the children and the adults in the movie do – they band together, work together, steal together and share with each other, look out for each other, and love each other. There is no biological family here, but there is a “chosen” family, people choosing to live in a common space where they eat, sleep and play together.

Within the daily grind to eke out a living, there are moments of bliss – a man and a woman making love, children sharing a treat, the “family” going to the beach.  A grandmother’s wry humour, a man’s playful talks with a boy.  They are all civil to each other, courteous, respectful, encouraging.

My favourite scenes have to do with the family slurping up bowls of noodles, joking and laughing and talking about their day.  They are all within inches of each other, touching a shoulder, holding a hand, caressing a cheek. It’s a very tactile film. Beauty and sadness are often linked in Japanese literature, and they are linked in this beautifully sad and joyful film.

After the first episode of stealing, the man and boy see a little girl left out in the cold.  They take her home for the night. The next day Osamu and his wife Nokuyo try to return the child but are unable to do so.  They overhear the child’s mother being beaten and the child being verbally abused by both parents. They take Juri in as if she were their own daughter.

The power – and the magic – of the film is that familial roles that I put in quotes at the beginning of my review to indicate they aren’t real become real. They lose their quotes mid-way in the story. Osamu acts like a father in his care of the young boy Shota and Nobuyo acts like a mother in her care of Juri, and Aki acts like a sister to Juri, cutting her hair and playing with her.  Both “adopted” children are given bucketfuls of love and attention.

In the family dynamic of “adopted” children and “surrogate” parents, moments of joy and humour abound.  When Osamu swims with Shota, he casually mentions that he saw the boy looking at Aki’s breasts and that’s okay. That’s normal.  And it’s normal for boys to sometimes wake up with an erection. Shota is delighted to receive this information. He thought he was sick and abnormal.   You don’t expect to be taught good parenting skills by a film or by a band of thieves in it, but this is one of the many gifts this film bestows on us.

This film is more than entertainment, more than a sweet diversion or escape for the viewer. “Shoplifters” subtly implies important questions: What is a family? What makes a family? Sometimes the family you choose, or who chooses you, forms a stronger bond than the natural family.  The essential ingredient of any family, in whatever form, is love.