Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
SHOPLIFTERS (MANBIKI KAZOKU)
In SHOPLIFTERS (MANBIKI KAZOKU), filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda takes a whimsical story about a ragtag band of hustlers living on the fringes of Tokyo and turns it into a gutting, heartrending study of the human need for love. This redemptive and insightful portrait doesn’t paint dynamics in black and white, but rather in varying shades that speak to the families we create versus the families we’re born into. With an exactingly tender touch, he delivers nothing short of a masterpiece – and perhaps also a career best.
Most father-son pastimes include going fishing and playing catch outside. Not for Osumo (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi). They enjoy the art of petty crime, shoplifting from grocery stores and bodegas to have some of their needs met. They’re part of a dysfunctional troupe of outsiders bonded by crime, cohabitating in a cramped but cozy cottage hidden from plain sight in the heart of the city. It’s an atypical paradise where society’s rules don’t apply if they don’t serve the greater good of the tightly-knit family. And since there’s plenty of love to go around, they welcome in one more – Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a pint-sized castaway whose parents abuse her.
In this carefully-contained, unconventional arrangement, everyone is allowed to live out their fantasy. Grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) fears dying alone so she allows Shota, Osumo and his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) to live off her government pension. Her own granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is also shacked up there. While grandma stays home with Shota during the day, everyone works part-time – Osumo at a construction site, Nobuyo at a dry cleaning factory and Aki at a sex club. Their daily life is a blissful one filled with respect. However, their under-the-radar existence is upended once small cracks turn into large fractures.
Similar to his gut-punching drama LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, Kore-eda explores the fascinating facets of complex parental connections – blood related and otherwise. Once again, he delves into the nature versus nurture commentary, though never makes things feel reductive of his previous elegant works. The psychology of these richly drawn, vivid characters is where the picture excels. Staggering amounts of keen insight into humanity are on display, capturing the characters’ perspectives with reality, hope and naiveté. Even better that he does it without any overt manipulation. The family’s actions are indeed morally questionable: They rationalize stealing because “it does not belong to anyone yet,” and “it’s not kidnapping if we don’t ask for a ransom.” But their philosophies stem from a pure, positive place. Kore-eda challenges the audience to engage with these situations, but he never stands in judgment. The auteur effortlessly cuts to the core of the characters’ drive, easily finding the profundity in these relationships. His minimalist sentiments lead to a welcomed economy of dialogue, like in the scenes showing Nobuyo and Juri bonding over their physical scars and conversing about their pasts. Not a false note is struck – only the heart strings are plucked.
Andô delivers a haunting, impeccable and superb performance as the family’s makeshift mother. Her vulnerability, compassion and strength shine. The film’s lone long take, where the camera remains static as Nobuyo breaks down, is an emotionally rattling show-stopper.
Haruomi Hosono’s score begins on a jovial, playful note, emphasizing the fantasy aspect of this family’s kinship. As the story progresses, the tone shifts almost imperceptibly to reflect the tonal mutations, finally ending on reserved, realism-based compositions. Ryûto Kondô’s cinematography augments the story and character-driven emotions without being gratuitously obvious. It evokes the ease and naturalism of the narrative.
SHOPLIFTERS plays AFI FEST on November 11 and 13. It opens in NY and Los Angeles on November 23.