A dysfunctional family in modern day Japan by Richard Jones

shopliftersA look at Shoplifters (M)

IN his latest film director Hirokazu Kore-eda has taken us on a completely different ride looking at Japanese society. Hardly a high-rise building in view, certainly no bullet trains or jet aircraft and definitely no high-end living with gourmet meals. Instead he’s focussed on a marginalised band of thieves and petty criminals living on the poverty line in his home country.

Osamu and Nobuyo are a couple living hand-to-mouth in a squatters’ shack on the outskirts of Tokyo – with a 10 or 11-year-old boy Shota also in the ‘house’. Shota is Osamu’s apprentice as the pair engage in pinching groceries, and sometimes shampoo and hair conditioner, from neighbourhood supermarkets. They co-ordinate their activities with a set of ritualised hand gestures.

The pair’s motto is: ‘Whatever’s in a store doesn’t belong to anyone – yet!’ They have an absolute show-stopper of a Grandma (the late Kiki Kilin) who also lives with them along with adult woman Aki who dresses as a schoolgirl to entertain men in a nearby sex shop.

One day Osamu and Shota come upon five-year-old waif Yuri. She doesn’t appear to have a home, has burn marks down both arms and is clearly starving. So they take her home and she eventually becomes another member of the burgeoning family.

Yuri gradually learns from Shota what to do in the aisles of a supermarket and she’s surprisingly fast across the ground for such a small girl. Mind you, in technology-driven Japan it’s a wonder that scanners and CCTV cameras don’t identify this trio of petty thieves. But they don’t.

The film occasionally moves at somewhat of a glacial pace with many, many scenes of the ‘family’ eating meals and downing soft drinks. Grandma diddles and fiddles with the social security payment system, even when she has trouble remembering her PIN number at an ATM, so when construction worker Osamu is laid off following a workplace injury at least the family has some income.

Nobuyo is sent packing from her laundry employment when a co-worker threatens to reveal how she’s pocketing misplaced jewellery and trinkets left on clients’ clothing. The big dilemma for the family is what to do with little Yuri. Could they be charged with abduction – or even worse, kidnapping – although Osamu plays down this scenario. He reasons if they haven’t forwarded a ransom note kidnapping won’t be in the frame with the police.

And of course their reasoning is influenced by the case of the lad Shota who’d also been ‘adopted’ earlier on by the group when he was similarly homeless and over the years has become a valued family member. Kore-eda’s target seems to be the prevailing sanctimony that real families are biologically related. He finds hope for this little Tokyo family who are as thick as thieves mainly because they are thieves.

Shoplifters was one of five finalists in the category of Best Foreign Language film at this month’s Golden Globe awards.

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