The best films are those which afford the viewer an inside look into a life experience different from their own, and Shoplifters does so in a way that is refreshingly atypical. Rather than focusing on the plot circumstances, Koreeda’s film takes an empathetic angle toward its central characters, forcing the audience to learn about them experientially without having to give in to any preconceptions.
Shoplifters tell the story of the Shibatas, a Japanese family who lives in a small shack. There’s junk everywhere, people everywhere else, and very little room to breathe. During the day, Dad takes the kids out shoplifting for food and essentials (with the rule that stealing is only okay if it doesn’t put the shop out of business) while the rest of the finances are taken care of by their elderly grandmother’s inherited pension. It’s a meager, somewhat desperate lifestyle, but even so, the entire family seems awash with love. There’s little judgment between them, and all follow the rule of making things as good as they can be for as many people as possible, even if it means being a little bad. Yes, they are indeed shoplifters, but they’d be more than happy to share their spoils with anyone in need. This is why, despite living on the fringe, there’s no resistance in welcoming a very young girl who was found on the street into the family.
It is initially difficult to determine how the characters are related to one another, which felt at first to be a liability, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that this is by design. We’re not meant to know who’s who until the very end, at which point the judgmental hammer is hesitant to fall on account of how deeply we care for and understand everybody. The bonds of their family unit are tested at every turn, but they always manage to hold it together (it’s basically a Fast & Furious movie without cars). If empathy will ultimately save us all, Shoplifters is an essential guide on how to conjure it.
Honestly, if this weren’t expressly a fiction, I’d think it were a documentary (albeit an artistically shot one). It’s just so realistic, so based in the universally relatable annals of the human experience, that I challenge anyone not to be moved by it. It’s no wonder this took home the Palme d’Or (although I think Burning was just a bit better).