Early in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s astonishing Shoplifters, a man and a boy walk along a Tokyo street. It’s nighttime and it’s cold. They come upon a little girl, maybe 5 years old, who sits alone, shivering and hungry. They want to take her to her home, which is just behind her, but from that place they hear a man and woman arguing, along with the sounds of the man beating the woman and both yelling about how neither of them wants this child. So, the man and boy take the girl to their home. Grandma feeds her and attends to the bruises on her arms and legs. She becomes part of their large and unruly household.
It’s of course illegal, but “wrong” is something else. It then turns out that the group of people living in this cramped apartment are not a family – in the technical sense of blood relations. That’s not a father and son on the nighttime street – it’s an older man and a boy he found some time ago, also abandoned and mistreated. The older woman is no one’s grandmother, at least in this group. This is a bunch of random people who have found each other, live together and survive, through a combination of odd jobs, the old woman’s pension, a bit of fraud – and shoplifting. The movie opens with that man teaching the boy how to shoplift. It’s a crime, and it’s also, in its way, a happy bonding experience for the two.
Shoplifters is one of the great ambiguous experiences in the movies. The man and boy become like father and son through a fully illegal activity. The apartment is a hodge podge of stuff – mats on the floor, boxes and junk. The mother figure and the little girl talk while the mother is in the tub – in a gross looking bathroom of broken tiles and crud. It’s hardly a picturesque location, but what happens there is a profound human contact that does both characters a lot of good.
It’s an imperfect world that Kore-eda draws. One young woman filches stuff from her job; another does intimate conversations in a sex club, separated from clients by mirrors, so that the men can see her, yet she can’t see them. But she too crosses the arbitrary boundaries of her job, to have a genuine encounter with a needy young man. Kore-eda says that he shot the film so that there were three layers in every shot, which turns out to mean that just about every image in the film is itself filled with contradictions. So, you find yourself continually readjusting how you see and think about the people and the action on screen.
Shoplifters is also about what you don’t see. There are visual indications of affection and connection, but feeling itself is invisible, and the uncanny experience of the movie is that you search for what cannot be seen. You might find that the film unseats many of your assumptions about human life and asks that you redefine and rearrange feeling and thought.
It’s obvious from the start that this existence can’t continue. It’s unsustainable. Even the abusive parents of the little girl, in full phony parental hypocrisy, are bound to call the police about their missing child. Grandma can’t go on forever. Shoplifters can get caught. People living this eccentrically in the middle of a city are bound to be noticed. Kore-eda also says about the picture that he hopes his audience will grow aware of gap between how they see the situation compared to the official investigators.
The detectives ask all the questions they should ask, but it’s clear that they’re the wrong questions. Notions of right and wrong, and what’s good or bad for people don’t always work and don’t always get to what’s really at issue. And the movie hits with its toughest paradox – that separation may be the proof of connection.