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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Shoplifters, Review: Only those who cannot study at home need to go to school

Shoplifters, Review: Only those cannot study at home need to go to school

Through many decades, albeit once in a while, a Japanese film comes up in the rich tradition of Frank Capra, Vittorio De Sica, Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, and the better films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, in the days of Yasujirō Ozu and Mikio Naruse, it was called neo-realistic cinema. Most of these films were made with non-star casts, on shoe-string budgets, had realistic styles of acting and shooting and, even when they had characters on the wrong side of the law, they re-emphasised the inherent goodness of human beings. We have one such film, made in Japan, in 2018, that has become the darling of film festivals, and won no less than the Golden Palm at Cannes. Quaintly, it is called Shoplifters.

Shoplifters was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film. A true auteur film, it is written, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Besides influences of the above makers, one can find shades of similarity in the premise of the film It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947), directed by Roy del Ruth. A brief synopsis of the 1947 film reads: A hobo moves in to a mansion on New York City's 5th Avenue, while its owners are away for the winter, and invites all his hobo friends in from the cold. But this Christmas, one of the owners comes home unexpectedly, to find her house occupied by jovial street dwellers. To make matters even worse, her father disguises himself as a hobo, to get an invitation to stay in his own home--and keeps his identity secret. Besides the fact that an odd and disparate bunch of people stay together and the issues that arise from such an arrangement, there are no other similarities between the two movies.

Yes, Shoplifters, whose original title translates literally as Shoplifting Family, is about three Tokyo shoplifters, Osamu, a day labourer and a veteran of the trade, Shota, a young boy, who lives with him, and the a little girl, Yuri, who is forced by circumstance to join the gang. Osamu is forced to leave his job after twisting his ankle, while his wife Nobuyo, who works for a laundry service, faces retrenchment. Aki, is hostess at a club, is managing to support herself, while Hatsue, an elderly ‘grandma’ who owns the home and shelters them, supports the group with her deceased husband's pension.

Osamu and Shota routinely shoplift goods, using a system of hand signals to communicate and indicate opportune moments. Osamu tells Shota it is alright to steal things that have not been sold, as they do not belong to anyone. One especially cold night, they see Yuri, a neighborhood girl they regularly observe, locked out on an apartment balcony. They bring her to their home, intending to only have her stay for dinner, but choose not to return her, after finding burn marks on her body, evidence of abuse. Yuri bonds with her new family and is taught to shoplift by Osamu and Shota. Osamu urges Shota to see him as his father and Yuri as his sister, but Shota is reluctant to do so. The family learns on television that police are investigating Yuri's disappearance. Afraid of running afoul of the law, the family cuts Yuri’s hair, burns her old clothes, and gives her a new name: Lin.

Among Hirokazu Kor-eda’s many achievements with Shoplifters include the first Golden Palm for Japan in 21 years. Co-incidentally, Kore-eda has been a name to reckon with for the past 21 years, ever since the fantasy, After Life (Wandafuru raifu, 1998). Other landmarks include the samurai drama, Hana (Hana yori mo naho, 2006), the doll come-to-life tale, Air Doll (Kuki ningyo, 2009), and most recently, the courtroom drama, The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, 2017). His background is in TV.

Three things seem to have churned in his mind while penning the script of Shoplifters, as he told the British Film Institute. Firstly, his observation that, in Japan, people tend to view crime as a matter of individual responsibility. They see it as this or that person’s fault, rather than something born out of society and social ills. So they just punish that person – because it’s that person’s fault, his individual responsibility – they treat it as nothing more than that. That’s how they solve the problem in Japan.

Secondly, he strongly feels that blood relation is not enough to define a family, and there need be no clear titles or relationships between individuals for them to love each other. And lastly, the small house in which six apparently unrelated persons of varying ages live together was very similar to the house where Kore-eda lived until he was nine. The actual house was smaller than that, and there were six of them who used to live in that small house. So he used to live in the cupboard, and he wanted the story to be from the point of view of the boy who slept in that cupboard. Which is what he realised, as director. One line that stays with you is what Osamu had told Shota, and Shota repeats towards the end, “Only those who cannot study at home need to go to school.”

Among his influences, Kore-eda cites the Japanese economic recession that set-in during the year 2009, and his visit to an orphanage, to research his theme, where he found a little girl reading Swimmy, by Dutch-Italian-American writer Leo Lionni. Shota first talks to Osamu about Swimmy, and then actually reads out a passage. Written about 55 years ago, Swimmy is a children’s tale that has been a favourite of kids for three generations. ‘Deep in the sea lives a happy school of fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and team work—they can overcome any danger. The legendary short story was the winner of the 1964 Caldecott Honor’.

In terms of characterisation, all the actors come across as realistic persons. It does appear that the shoplifters are really lucky not to get caught, even after indulging in their thievery time and again, over years. Though it mentioned towards the end that Osamu had done time years ago, it is not specified whether it was for shoplifting. Interestingly, one shop-keeper catches Shotu in the act, but lets him go, warning him not to teach the tiny tot the tricks of his trade. This indicates that he was aware of the antics of Osamu and Shotu all along. You have to stretch your belief a bit to accept the repeated, co-incidental sighting of Yuri by the duo, and the burying of no less than two dead bodies under the house.

Sometime around the 100-minute mark, the 121-minute films seems to have reached a climax, but that is when a long denouement starts unfolding, and you learn about the back-stories of each of the characters. This gives the impression of a false ending, and might cause a bit of uneasiness in audiences who might not be real film-buffs. A technique that distinguishes his work is the holding of the close/mid-close shot after for a couple of the character has finished speaking lines. Mongoloid featured faces do not betray too many emotions, generally, not so in the Shoplifters. As Hirokazu holds the camera, you get a chance to study their expressions, and you might get surprised by what you see. Also, the love-making scene is so naturally done that you don’t even notice the nudity of either partner.

Kore-eda uses some very impressive top-angle shots (his first pairing with cinematographer Kondo Ryoto), and eschews background music almost entirely. (I saw the film on a Vimeo screener that had very low volume output, so I cannot be sure about this). As a result of no music, the slow film comes across as even slower, a deliberate choice by the maker. Some more pace was required, and, at 15 minutes less in length, Shoplifters would elevate itself to a higher plane.

With an unlikely screen-name name of Lily Franky, Masaya Nakagawa, an actor-illustrator-writer, plays Osamu Shibata. His face and gait go well with his persona. Sakura Ando as Nobuyo Shibata, his wife, is completely deglamourised, and uses this to her advantage in her gestures and postures. Mayu Matsuoka as Aki Shibata, the hostess who is willing to go as far as necessary, acts uninhibitedly, and in a business-like manner. Kairi Jō, the young shoplifter Shota Shibata, from whose perspective the story is told, says little, conveying his moods with silences and body-language. Late Kirin Kiki, a Kore-eda favourite, is a natural, as grandma Hatsue Shibata. Her death last year has shaken Kore-eda, and he is finding it difficult to start making new films without her. Miyu Sasaki as Yuri Hojo/Juri/Lin, the four/five year-old, shows early signs of developing into a talented actress, what with her blank looks and nods that speak volumes.

Adequate support comes from Sosuke Ikematsu as 4 ban-san (the Aki’s client), Naoto Ogata as Yuzuru Shibata, Yoko Moriguchi as Yoko Shibata (the two have only one scene, playing Aki’s parents), Yūki Yamada as Yasu Hojo, Moemi Katayama as Nozomi Hojo (Yuri’s parents, with very little screen time), Kengo Kora as Takumi Maezono, Chizuru Ikewaki as Kie Miyabe and Akira Emoto as Yoritsugu Kawado.

Except for a bit of inevitable melodrama, Shoplifters avoids becoming a tear-jerker. After it is over, you realise that along with many items from malls, this bunch of filches have stolen your hearts too.

Rating: *** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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