Reflecting on ‘Shoplifters’ and Poverty

March 26, 2019
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Features, Film

There is a certain clutter to poverty. Though material possessions aren’t owned by desire but by necessity, the small spaces the poverty-stricken inhabit are often seen as a calamitous and claustrophobic mess. As Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo’s (Sakura Ando) cupboard-sized abode on the outskirts of Tokyo is introduced in all of its litter, a phrase came to mind from George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier: ‘[…] and there was a once-gaudy carpet ringed by the slop-pails of years.’ This is not the last time Orwell’s study on the working-class with the means to expose the oppression of poverty comes to mind. Or sends an echo of an image the writer raised nearly a century ago in the UK.

Osamu and Nobuyo share their home with the savvy boy, Shota (Kairi Jyo) – the receiver of Osamu’s thieving tutelage, the sassy elder, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and a mysterious young woman in Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). Whilst Nobuyo and Shota are on the way home from a successful shoplifting spree that would feed their family that night, they come across a tatty toddler in Juri (Miyu Sasaki), presented as a child in desperate need of care and food. And so, the family grows. Though these people have nothing, they still want to give something. This spirit is established early.

During extensive traveling around Asia, including Japan, I saw many instances of cramped one-room homes, often shopfronts by day (and most of the night) that changed my perceptions of words like ‘poverty’, ‘underprivileged’ and ‘working-class’ so often linked with my upbringing. I bring this up in a review as I had a relation to the initial veneer Shoplifters presents – and continues to peel back, revealing another slice of social commentary. The potency of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s script and direction are so fine-tuned, intimate and believable that Shoplifters has the real-world resonance of a documentary fit for all to witness and understand these characters.

Each member feeds into the home in some way. Hatsue’s pension, Osamu and Nobuyo’s part-time jobs, Aki’s chat-room teasing for tips and, following in the footsteps of their not-quite father, Shota and Juri’s five-finger discounting. All characters have their individual paths but it’s when they unify that Kore-eda sews their heartstrings to yours. Whether a discussion of superstition about cut toe-nails leading to injury or, the misunderstanding of the rising son – Shota thinks he might be ill for having morning glory – these moments of tender purity could draw smiles from statues and tears from Trump.

The first two acts explore the humane sentimentality the world desperately needs right now, which is why Trump, as a figurehead for the fires sweeping sense and serenity, is reluctantly mentioned. So earnest is the innocence that it’s easy to forget the title of the film and the criminal connotations slapped on people who steal. Love, child-abuse, community, and trauma coalesce into a soup so nourishing that the severest of souls will be warmed.

Exorcising any doubts as to the force of such a quiet film, the second act ends with two memorable scenes thoughtfully composed by cinematographer Ryuto Kondo: A grey but no less jovial family day at the beach immortalised in a postcard snapshot of the family dancing on the lapping tide; a distant fireworks display audibly whizzing and popping as the high camera is fixed on the craned-necks and smiling faces of the somber six, limiting the viewer to their lane.

In the final third, the larger socio-political structures look to eke out judgment on the troupe as Kore-eda’s deft negation of stereotypes is brought forth by social workers and police officers. The real world, or at least the one that insists upon its worth with mundanity and labels, strikes at these deep individuals – looking to tear them apart. Bureaucrats and civil servants vehemently dismiss the prospect that family can be found. Scenes of interrogation and loaded questions maneuvers Shoplifters from its family-drama structure to a harsh insight into the aforementioned problems borne by the hard-right – so dogged in cataloging and othering they fail to see people aren’t products or prison sentences.

Shoplifters is a journey of realism that allows inflections of fairytale in the sundry community of outlanders. Kore-eda addresses timeless issues of class in an essay of empathy which offers a remix of an old adage: A man with a fish eats for a day. A man who distracts a clerk as his two proteges steal fishing rods to sell on can eat for a few more days. And to hark back to Orwell in his own essay: “It is only when you meet someone from a different culture from yourself that you begin to realize what your own beliefs are.” Kore-eda’s cast and crew challenge any who see Shoplifters to question their perceptions on poverty.

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