Quantity and quality, as alike as the two words sound, have long been pitted as opposites. To be prolific is to be imperfect, or so the thinking goes, although Hirokazu Kore-eda just keeps blowing that idea out of the water. The writer-director's latest release is his eleventh since the turn of the century and, in a hefty collection of intimate, moving movies that includes Nobody Knows, Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister, the Palme d'Or-winning Shoplifters is one of the best. There's really no such thing as a bad Kore-eda film, even when he steps into slightly different territory, as with last year's less-acclaimed crime flick The Third Murder. But his rich and poignant new family drama is almost disarmingly affecting (and effective), showcasing the height of the Japanese filmmaker's prowess.
The family that steals together, stays together in Shoplifters. Daily pilfering — and other petty crimes and grifts, as well as regular pension cheques — enable father Osamu (Lily Franky), mother Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), aunt Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and son Shota (Jyo Kairi) to survive in their tiny, overpacked cottage on the outskirts of Tokyo. On the way home one winter evening after giving their light fingers a workout, Osamu and Shota spy a slip of a girl cold and shivering on an apartment balcony, and soon young Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is in their care too. While Osamu and Nobuyo's choice to keep the bruised and starving child could be construed as kidnapping, she's just so happy with them. In time, Yuri also proves rather skilled in the family business.
'Family drama' is a loaded way to describe Shoplifters. It's accurate — more accurate than can be conveyed without giving too much away — but the two words barely scratch the surface of Kore-eda's film. Seemingly straightforward in its narrative and themes, but thoroughly complex in the depths it reaches in both its story and sentiments, Shoplifters doesn't simply ponder one family's tough but loving existence. Rather, it contemplates exactly what makes a family. On more than one occasion, a character wonders whether blood or choice forge a stronger bond, a notion that couldn't be more important as the movie's ups and downs play out. Integral to that train of thought is Kore-eda's clear-eyed exploration of an oft-ignored aspect of Japanese society, at least on screen: the realities of life on the country's margins.
As embodied by the film's central clan, the poor and the struggling aren't ignored here. They're literally stealing to get by, and they're never denigrated for it. Nor does the movie judge them for their decision to unofficially adopt someone else's child. The cast, which includes some of Japan's great acting talents, deserve a wealth of credit for building textured, layered characters that cannot be pigeonholed — people who feel like they could've walked off of the street and into Kore-eda's naturalistically shot picture. It's not just financial stress that drives Franky's patriarch, for example, but a desperation to connect that's evident every time that Shota steadfastly refuses to call him dad. And it's not just caring for one's elders that cements Kiki's grandma at the head of the family, a truth that's always apparent on the now-late actor's face.
Of course, Franky, Kiki and the rest of the movie's stars have the good fortune to be performing for Kore-eda, one of the most empathetic and humanistic directors in the business both in Japan and around the world. Tissues should come with tickets to his films, not because he overtly pulls at the heartstrings, but because he peers so generously at everyone within his frames. Indeed, the kindness that he shows, and the space that he gives his characters, has a quietly overwhelming impact. Here, the filmmaker is at his best when he's cramming Shoplifters' family into their cramped villa, and observing their interactions, emotions and motivations in such close quarters. Every moment of their lives is tainted by hardship and harshness, but every moment is also a tender revelation.