Movie Review: “Shoplifters” pass it down, generation to generation in this Japanese drama

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“Shoplifters” is an award-winning Japanese drama about a little seen corner of that country’s culture — the working poor. And by “working,” I mean day labor in construction, sex club performer or ironer at a dry cleaners.

But as the title suggests, this extended family, three generations living in the hovel that used to be a nicer house where grandma still lives, steal. That’s their side hustle. Food in the market, toys in the local convenience store, “Just wear it out” department store clothes, fishing gear, chips in a slot machine casino — if they don’t want to pay for it, the Shibatas don’t.

Just as we’re making up our mind about them, with the patriarch (veteran character actor Lily Franky) giving hand signals to beautiful but cagey tween Shota (Jyo Kairi) so that they can loot their local supermarket, something happens to alter that perception.

A little girl (Miyu Sasaki) is all alone, weeping in a house. No, she doesn’t know where her mommy or daddy are. Yes, she’s hungry.

“Send her home,” wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) gripes. “We’re not an orphanage…can’t get involved.”

But Grandma (Kirin Kiki) dotes on the five year old. “You’re covered in scars,” she notices. And when Mom and Dad try to return little Yuki to her house, the screaming brawl echoing through the windows melts even unsentimental Nobuyo’s heart.

“You don’t grow up to care for others” in this world, Nobuyo admits. But she does.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Our Little Sister”) cleverly uses Yuki as our access to this world, letting her observe the techniques father has passed to son, and the working lives of everyone here.

Dad gets hurt on his day-labor job, Mom faces layoffs at the dry cleaning plant — beginning with “work share” schemes.

“So everybody gets a little poorer.”

And then there’s Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), grandma’s favorite and Mom’s sexy sister. She’s bubbly fun and she brings money in by working as a “hostess” at those infamous Japanese sex clubs — putting on a schoolgirl’s uniform and putting on a show for lonely, damaged men sitting on the other side of a window, up-selling them on more personal contact for “chat.”

Dad makes it his business to instruct the kids on the family business. He grouses about the price of a window-cracking hammer to his boy — “Very expensive…if you pay for it.”

Someday, we’re going to see what he needs that hammer for. At some point, the new daughter’s “missing girl” status becomes a problem. Reluctant Dad is going to be pulled back into a sex life he’d lost interest in.

And that’s when Koreeda starts unraveling our first AND second impressions about this family, with relationships explained, motives upended as the walls of society — police, social services and others — close in around the Shibata clan.

Details stick with you — Shota teaching Yuri how to unplug the security detector at the door so he can pilfer fishing gear, Grandma revealing her own propensities as she nimbly lifts chips at a casino or grifts the children of her late husband’s later marriage. The elderly shop owner sees the older “brother” bringing baby sister into the game, and guilts him with free popsicles.

“Don’t make your sister do it,” he says (in Japanese, with English subtitles).

The cynicism of one and all is obvious long before Dad hobbles home after his injury. Workman’s comp? “It’d be better if you BROKE it, not just cracked (his ankle) it,” his wife complains.

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“Shoplifters,” winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, is a film acted with great sensitivity, a rough story delicately told. Koreed discretely keeps injuries, arrests and other “big moments” just off camera, allowing the natural drama of the milieu and the characters inhabiting it to carry the film.

That allows “Shoplifters” to transcend its Grifting: How It’s Done genre conventions and make its larger statement with ease. Not all parents give birth, and even the sketchiest upbringing can get across the Big Life Lessons every child needs to learn.

3half-star
MPAA Rating: R for some sexual content and nudity

Cast: Jyo Kairi, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka

Credits: Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreed. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:01

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