It starts with a kidnapping. A little girl playing outside in the wintry cold is brought to a warm, cheerful home where she’s fed and doted upon. The adults worry about the 5-year-old’s undernourished frame and obvious signs of physical and emotional abuse. A slightly older boy makes sure the girl gets her favorite ingredient in the single noodle pot the multigenerational family crowds around for dinner. Where does tiny Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) belong, and where would she thrive? Have the adults who technically abducted her—but quickly treat like one of the family—saved her, as they believe? Or have they grown so used to their chronic pilfering—arguably out of economic necessity, though we’re never quite sure of that—that taking a child from her parents hardly registers as such?
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or–winning Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) is built on such uncertainties. Delicate yet gravid, these ambiguities are rooted in human complexities and moral quandaries. Kore-eda is entirely disinterested in judgment—and likely expects his audiences to be, too. Far more fascinating, in any case, is how the six-person band of thieves (Yuri soon to be among them) came to form a family without any blood ties and to what extent they genuinely trust and care for one another. The drama has something in common with more sentimental American shows like Pose and even Friends, which pay tribute to newer configurations of chosen kinship among queer individuals and urban professionals, respectively. But for all its gentle groundedness, a quality that suffuses much of Kore-eda’s work, Shoplifters strenuously resists romanticizing its main characters. Its compassion is more convincing for it. So is its brilliance.
Initially, Yuri’s appearance in the Shibata family’s old, cramped house isn’t entirely welcome.
Its elderly proprietress, Hatsue (Kiki Kirin), who’s afraid of dying alone, immediately approves of the little girl, as does Osamu (Lily Franky), a factory worker who got tired of seeing the child starving and left on her own. On the other hand, Osamu’s wife, waitress Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), sees the situation—and its legal implications—more clearly than most. Shota (Jyo Kairi), the elfin, elementary school–age boy Osamu hopes will one day call him “Dad,” begins a one-sided sibling rivalry with Yuri. More or less indifferent to the girl is young sex worker Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who’s devoted to the grandmotherly Hatsue. Nobuyo wonders if the extra mouth that Yuri represents will create additional financial strain, especially as none of the family’s working adults enjoy job stability. But the little girl’s arrival exposes instead what a fragile balance the family had been dependent on to sustain their makeshift lifestyle.
If this plot summary seems pretty vague, consider it a necessity. Shoplifters reveals the actual relationships between the characters as deliberately as a flower blooming in sunrise: The joy lies in the steady unfurling. There’s more love, and more lies, among the Shibatas than the authorities can see when they finally catch up to what they can only view as a gang of miscreants. And while the children are undeniably adored and cared for by their new family, the grown-ups have no idea how to prepare them for anything other than hardscrabble, marginal lives like their own. Yuri isn’t with them for too long before she’s forced to regularly take on several new names. When an injury befalls Shota, the shock isn’t the family’s decision to leave the boy behind at the hospital but the assumption that he’ll understand their brutal practicality.
Shoplifters’ question of whether this family counts as a “real” one does occasionally feel belabored. But its exploration of the layers, and limits, within this unlikely clan is so moving and observant that one can easily overlook that foible. Like nearly every mystery in the film, it isn’t meant to be resolved anyway. To spend time with the Shibatas is to make peace with a lack of answers. In so doing, Shoplifters achieves that ultimate goal of art as expressed by the artist Robert Filliou: It’s art that makes life more interesting than art.