Is blood really thicker than water? "That's just what mothers imagine," Nobuyo Shibata (Sakura) tells the investigating officer after her life has unfurled. From the outside, it's not much of a life. She works a low-pay job, sharing a tiny apartment with her husband Osamu (Franky), half-sister Aki (Matsuoka), son Shota (Jō), and grandma (Kiki). They're on the outermost fringes of society: Osamu is teaching Shota to shoplift, Aki's working as a hostess in a sleazy chat room, and granny constantly complains that they're all just sponging off her. Yet there is love, and there is compassion, and this unwieldy collective is constantly there for each other, even if the bonds of blood may be a little more tenuous than they appear. They're that family everyone knows, the ones down the block where there's always some new face crashing, with a cousin you've never heard of before who moves in one day. So of course no one blinks twice when a new waif, Yuri (Sasaki), makes her way into their lives, and Osamu and Nobuyo decide that she's best off becoming part of the family.
The easy and most commonly made comparison for writer/director Kore-eda's latest is his 2004 tale of abandoned half-siblings, Nobody Knows. In reality, semi-families have been a recurrent theme in his work, whether thrust together or falling apart. Yet in many ways Shoplifters is an unlikely yet organic extension of his last film, 2017's crime drama The Third Murder. Less a whodunit than a whydidyoudoit, that legal procedural was really a subtle assault on Japan's judicial system, in which it's more important that a case makes sense than it reaches the truth. Shoplifters cuts close to the same marrow as The Third Murder, but with how Japan views families as his subject. The clan is composed of petty crooks and chancers, and there's no chance this dysfunctional unit will survive in its unstable nuclear form, but Kore-eda paints them with incredible sympathy and nuance. Their sins are never washed away by the love they show for each other, but on the scales of justice, he seemingly suggests, it should count for a lot more than it does.
Unlike the judicial system, Shoplifters is most interested in the truth of this fractured unit. Kore-eda was originally inspired by stories of families that hide the death of a loved one and keep claiming their benefits – the kind of headline-grabbing story that gets the middle classes tut-tutting. But by constructing the minutiae of how a family gets that desperate, he finds the beautiful dynamics. Moreover, he continues to be unequaled in bringing astounding and heartfelt performances, especially from his young actors. Shota's begrudging acceptance of his new task as big brother, balancing his sense of making Yuri one of the family while knowing he should teach her to be better, is a tender delight. At the other end of life, grandma Hatsue (veteran character actress Kiki in her final role) embraces all her petty crimes with a hint of quiet guilt. It's the perfect depiction of the line between being a good person and being law-abiding, and how that's not a border, but a Venn diagram.
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