Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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“Shoplifters” is the title of a new Japanese film. I prefer its more literal translation: “Shoplifting Family.”

That title promises to introduce us to a family who survive by shoplifting.

Hidden away in a corner of Tokyo we find the Shibata family, a collection of misfits who survive by petty crime. We meet Osamu (Lily Franky), an out-of-work laborer. His wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works in a laundry. His daughter Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), who works at a hostess club. His son Shota (Jyo Kairi), who is a skilled thief. And Hatsue (Kiki Kirin), the elderly woman who helps support them with an illegally collected pension belonging to her deceased husband.

Osamu explains to his son that it is okay to steal things that have not been sold, as they do not belong to anyone.

Later, the authorities ask Osamu, “Didn’t you feel guilty making kids shoplift?”

“I don’t know anything else to teach them,” replies the father.

One night Osamu and Shota spot a young girl shivering behind a fence. They bring four-year-old Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) home with them, intending to have her only stay for dinner. But when they notice signs of abuse, they decide to keep her.

“Hey, it looks like we kidnapped her,” says Aki.

“I found her. It was someone else who threw her away,” is the reply.

When Child Welfare Services discover the girl with her makeshift family, things look “bad, very bad.”

But as we learn, “Sometimes, it’s better to choose your own family.”

“Shoplifters” will steal your heart this week at Tropic Cinema.

The film won Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or last May. And it has been nominated as Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming 91st Academy Awards.

How did writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda come up with this storyline? “During the time I was making ‘Like Father Like Son,’” he tells us, “one of the questions that came up about a relationship between a father and a son was, is it the time you spend together or is it blood?

“That question developed inside of me and I thought it’s time to explore a family that doesn’t have a blood relationship. So if they’re not tied by blood, what should I tie them together with?

“I decided they’re connected through crime, but then I thought what kind of crimes would I work with? At the time, there were news reports of people who did not submit a death certificate and kept collecting the pension of the parent that had died. And there were also various articles about families that would make their money by shoplifting. So I decided to use those two crimes as the motif.”

Thanks to his gentle dramas of families in flux, Kore-eda has emerged as the most feted Japanese filmmaker of his generation. The arrival of a long-lost half-sister, an infant switched at birth, or an ex-wife filing for custody – these are the themes that Hirokazu Kore-eda uses to disrupt our emotional makeup. He does this with such a quiet, tranquil approach that the impact catches us by surprise.

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