Early in our childhood, our parents try to instill in us a sense of right from wrong. “No!” or “Mine!” are among the first few words that a child learns, so it is not difficult to teach a child how to be “bad,” for they tend to figure this out all on their own. Parents will find it more difficult to teach their children the importance of obedience and selflessness, or how if you see something pretty that does not belong to you, it is not right to take it for yourself. In Hirokazu Koreeda’s newest feature Shoplifters, he revisits and challenges one of the most rudimentary childhood lessons, that it is wrong to steal – as he studies a family who are training their children in the art of sleight of hand – and along the way, reconsiders one of his favourite theses of what defines a family, and the role a guardian has in shaping his child’s identity.
The Shibata clan, consisting of mother Nobuyo, father Osamu, daughters Aki and Yuri, son Shota, and grandmother Hatsue, seems like a very sweet but ordinary family. They watch fireworks displays together and like to hold hands as they chase and run away from waves crashing onto the beach. However, they are poorer than most, and in their small apartment many of their belongings are kept in towers of bins to conserve space. This makes mobility difficult, and there is only enough room for a few mattresses they all must share. Few are employed – Hatsue has an illegal pension of 7,000 Yen, but that does not go far. With six mouths to feed, to make ends meet Aki works by night performing soft-core strip teases in front of private semi-transparent mirrors, while Osamu takes Shota and Yuri to stores where they can steal luxuries and staples that they cannot afford, and items that can be re-sold for some extra income.
Before long, it is revealed that this impoverished family are not all biological relatives: Nobuyo and Osamu have fertility barriers that keep them from having children of their own, and they have assembled a modern-day Oliver Twist clan. Like Oliver Twist’s Fagin, Osamu has rescued vulnerable children from desperate conditions. Shota was found living out of a vehicle; later, Osamu and Shota find Yuri in the freezing cold, and take her back to their home. While he is not significantly better off than they, Osamu is nevertheless certain that he can provide these children with a better life, and he raises them as if they were his own. Yuri does not appear to protest her integration into the Shibata family, but she wets the bed the first few nights (a classic symptom of child trauma), signaling a complex reaction to this jarring interruption in her life. Shoto and Osamu instruct her in the basic skills of shoplifting, having her carry out essential keys to their operations like unplugging the security sensors so they can pass through a store’s entrance undetected. But it is only a matter of time before someone is bound to get caught. In one of his attempted robberies, Shoto is chased by a shop worker after he steals a bag of oranges. During the pursuit Shoto jumps off a bridge, and while he survives, he breaks his leg and is taken to a hospital. In no uncertain terms, this spells trouble for the Shibatas, and their endurance as a family unit is about to be threatened.
In his study of this family, Koreeda uses their circumstances and choices to ponder situational ethics. The Shibatas are very poor and do what they must to survive. A traditional moral compass insists that stealing is wrong, but when someone does not have access to the most basic essentials, how is that humane? Is it really so important to be able to hold one’s head high in righteous superiority at the expense of enjoying basic human dignity? Still, to ignore the rigid dogmas that society imposes does not come easily, and Nobuyu reassures Shota that something does not belong to someone until it has been purchased, and as long as it looks like a store is in no danger of bankruptcy, their stock is fair game. But once you excuse one thing, you can eventually excuse anything, and it is easy for Osamu to forget the family’s unwritten criteria when he decides to steal a Chanel handbag that he sees in the backseat of a van, something that Shota objects to.
The conundrum of whether it is wrong to steal and if something stolen now belongs to the person who takes it is not limited to the material: Shoplifters proceeds to question if once someone is taken from the family they were born into, can they belong to the family that assumed a forced guardianship of them? As if unsatisfied with the stakes of his exploration in Like Father, Like Son, another of his melodramas that ponders if two children switched at birth belong to the family they were born into or the family that raised them, Koreeda trades an innocent mishap for a deliberate one, in order to test the significance of intent. When Shota sees a missing child advertisement for Yuri’s disappearance on television, he begins to wonder if Osamu’s claim that they were saving her from dire circumstances is good enough reason to bring her into their family. Yet the significance of her abduction becomes murky once they see signs that Yuri was abused in her home, as she exhibits fear of being hit. Maybe her bed-wetting is not proof of the Shibatas’ culpability, and is instead a side effect of earlier emotional damage? Nobuyo tenderly explains to Yuri that whenever one person hits another, and says they are doing it out of love, it is a lie, because people who love someone do not want to hurt them. Does Yuri belong more to a family she is part of thanks to birthright, or is a family who have no apparent right to her but are more conscientiously protective and nurturing a safer, better fit?
Koreeda will not impose his own conclusions to the questions he raises: after all, these questions are too difficult to be answered definitively. As always, he finds it more important to entertain the possibility that expectations should not be inflexible, and lovingly proposes that human interests should always come before concrete moral assumptions.