Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku) won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at the Cannes Film Festival. Now it has also been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Yet, I can’t help feeling that this is a case of the right director for the wrong film. This was the fifth time that Hirokazu Kore-eda was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and the second time Japan chose one of his films as its entry to the Academy Awards. It’s as if the Cannes jury and the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Committee suddenly discovered that they had been overlooking one of the world’s leading filmmakers, and they’d better deal with it right away.
Two of Kore-eda’s previous films stand out. Fans of another of 2019’s Foreign Language nominees, Capernaum, might want to check out Nobody Knows (2004), its spiritual predecessor. Nobody Knows stars Yûya Yagira (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes) as 12-year-old Akira, whose flighty mother has left him behind to take care of himself and three younger siblings. And she doesn’t come back. Like Father, Like Son (2013), told primarily from the point-of-view of successful workaholic architect Ryota (Masaharu Fukushima), is about two families who discover that their sons, now six years old, were mistakenly switched at birth at the hospital. The couple who have been raising the biological son of Ryota and his wife are laid-back shopkeepers.
With Shoplifters, Kore-eda continues his examination of what exactly constitutes a family. In this case, there’s a couple, father Osamu (Franky Lily), who works as a day laborer in construction; mother Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), who works in a large-scale laundry; Nobuyo’s younger sister, who earns money dressing as a schoolgirl for call-in sex clients; Granny, a widow with a pension; and Shota (Jyo Kairi), a pre-pubescent boy. Despite having four sources of income, the family supplements their income by shoplifting. One evening, Osamu and Shota are returning from a shoplifting expedition when they chance upon a little girl alone and shivering in the cold. They take her home and feed her. When Granny discovers bruises on the little girl’s body, they decide to keep her. They name her Yuri and incorporate her into the family.
Eventually, Osamu and Shota begin teaching Yuri how to shoplift. When a tolerant shopkeeper asks Shota not to turn his “little sister” into a shoplifter, Shota goes through a crisis of conscience. And he begins to question the circumstances that led him to end up in the family. Inevitably, the family’s situation starts to fall apart.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent film. But notice the difference between Shoplifters and Kore-eda’s two other films that I mentioned. In Nobody Knows, young Akira is forced to deal with a crisis that is not of his making. In Like Father, Like Son, Ryota and the others are also forced to deal with a crisis not of their making. In Shoplifters, on the other hand, Osamu and Nobuyo have created their own crisis. Sure, the message is that a family can struggle financially even with four sources of income, but these people are criminals. They steal, they break into cars, and they kidnap children. Kidnapping is not a victimless crime.
So, thank you Cannes Film Festival and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for finally honoring Hirokazu Kore-eda. I just wish you’d done it sooner.