What constitutes a family? This is the fundamental question “Shoplifters” invites viewers to consider through its unflinching portrayal of an unconventional, trauma-bound household scraping out a marginal existence in Tokyo.

The Shibata family lives in poverty, subsisting through temporary jobs and petty crime. Shota is Osamu’s shoplifting apprentice. Together, they form an effective team, pilfering foodstuffs and occasionally more profitable items. They share a cramped one-room apartment with grandmother Hatsue, granddaughter Aki, and Osamu’s partner, Nobuyu.

Hatsue survives on a pension and to the authorities’ knowledge is the only official resident of the apartment, with everyone else living under the radar. Osamu works intermittently as a construction worker, Nobuyu as a seamstress, and Aki makes a living as a cam and peepshow model in a dubious establishment.

The film opens with Shota and Osamu scoring a haul of instant noodles from a local convenience store. On their way home in the early evening, they find a young girl confined to the balcony of a ground-level apartment, shivering in the cold. Concerned for her welfare, they bring her back to their home, warm her up, and feed her, planning to return her in the morning. However, upon discovering signs of abuse, they decide to keep her for a while longer.

As the story unfolds, “Shoplifters” provides uncommon insight into the lives of Japan’s lower socioeconomic class, highlighting an inadequate welfare system and a bureaucratically flawed child support system. The film weaves a tapestry that imbues the viewer with empathy and hope for each character, even as their trajectories inevitably slide toward catastrophe.

Particularly poignant is the portrayal of the complex bond shared among the household members, subtly explored through tender interactions. We learn of their shocking histories, and in doing so, we understand and empathise with how their present circumstances came to be.

Ultimately, “Shoplifters” humanises those who fall through the cracks of society and carefully questions conventional morality, especially when the efficacy of that morality is in doubt.




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