Lily Franky is the kind of grown-up you would have loved to have known as a child. Impish, infectiously energetic and with a killer giggle, he stars in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winner as Osamu, a man who can turn any space into a playground and any scenario into a game.
Not only is this ceaseless imagination a warm characteristic of this construction worker-cum-petty criminal, it’s also a trick to survive. Through secret signs and routines, Osama and his surrogate son Shota (Jyo Kairi) lift everyday items from their neighbouring stores. It’s a well-oiled collaboration pulled off with Danny Ocean-style slickness (minus the swagger, save for a modest fist bump). “Whatever’s in the store doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” is the Shibata family motto, a fitting slogan as both family and motto don’t exactly sit within society.
Huddled in the confines of a makeshift home, Osamu and Shota live as part of a mismatched family bound by poverty. There’s Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a younger woman whose relationship within the family remains unclear. The late Kirin Kiki plays matriarch Hatsue, shedding the gentle charm that made her so enchanting in Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean for something a little more wicked, but no less watchable.
Each have their own way of contributing: Nobuyo works in a laundry house, pocketing anything that falls out of the clothes she cleans; Hatsue takes money from the family of her former husband; Aki performs in a strip booth, joking with Hatsue about the value of a little sideboob.
Koreeda has found a stellar cast for his motley crew, with unquestionably strong performances throughout, but Ando is particularly striking as Nobuyo. A complex young woman old before her time, she wears a near-constant expression of amusement, always trying to do the best for people even if it means telling them things they don’t want to hear.
The family dynamic is laid bare with the rescuing of Yuri (played by disarmingly adorable newcomer Miyu Susaki), a taciturn five-year-old who the boys find alone on a bitterly cold night. Through her muteness (there are hints of domestic abuse from her real parents) we observe the unusual bonds that tie the household together. Koreeda skillfully illustrates what measured affection looks like; a self-made family unit aware that there is no obligation or sentiment between them, yet they stay together anyway.
In an illuminating scene, Osamu and Nobuyo, alone in the house on an uncharacteristically quiet afternoon, move from slurping noodles in icy water to having sex in a way that lacks romance but isn’t without love. Koreeda, who also edited the film, brings such a stillness to Shoplifters that when the family ties fray and snap it’s met with quiet devastation instead of a big emotional crescendo – a sad confirmation that this is a household that knew its days were numbered.
Herein lies the film’s greatest strength: at its heart is a group of people living with the hidden knowledge that consequences will eventually catch up with them, so they must make the most of the time they have together.