Hirokazu Kore-eda is the rare director who meets children at eye-level. In its early scenes, Shoplifters is full of chaos: a friendly, everyday insolvency that forms Shota’s small and airtight world. He sleeps in a cubbyhole, the one measure of privacy anyone gets in Granny’s micro-apartment, which is home less to a family than an accretion of people who come and go and crowd the place and live among the processed-food wrappers: a laborer, a laundress, a sex worker. Petty thieves all. And there’s a newcomer, herself a steal: Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is pilfered off her porch by Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jō) on a cold Tokyo night after a routine con at the grocery store. Since abusive parents had left her out, it seems an act of mercy.
Where other filmmakers might explain away the chaos, Kore-eda eases us into it. We do not need the details to get absorbed into these lives; in short order we forget that we never had them. With a wiry frame and stubble on his chin like salt stuck in the shaker, Franky (who was born in 1963) looks too old to be Shota’s father, and much too old to play at this game. Osamu pockets less pleasure from his piddling gains than he does tossing monkey wrenches into the system. His rejection of property rights may be the least materialistic form of greed; it makes him feel entitled to all commodities and all people, and leaves him with a tendency to blur the line between them. But Osamu’s pleasures are real and so is his paternal instinct.
It seems almost narrow-minded to demand clarification on the ties that bind these people when the bonds themselves are evidently so strong, but Kore-eda comprehends the gravity of these questions, and slips them into Shota’s growing pains. The boy is getting past the age where he can accept the ambiguity of his situation. He knows that other kids go to school while he is off stealing; he cares for Yuri but refuses to call her his sister; he sees cause for concern when she is labeled a missing person on the news. This film is an ensemble piece: it is not told from the child’s point of view in the sense that Rosemary’s Baby is told from the mother’s. It bats around at the lives crammed into Granny’s squalid apartment; it shadows their victories, and, without emphasis, neoliberal dead-ends. But we feel the dream cloud dissolve in Shota’s pubescence. Reality breaks through like cold rain.