The Shibata clan think they have it pretty good as far as their quality of life goes, all things considered, though their lifestyle is not what one would call conventional. Indeed, they make most of their acquisitions through stealing; their daily meals, for example, are provided through shoplifting comestibles from stores around the city and bringing them home to the three-generation family. However, one night on the way home as winter is drawing in, the patriarch, Osamu (Lily Franky) notices a little girl shivering in a corner, and takes pity on her so decides to take her home to look after her himself, after all, the Shibatas are nothing if not caring and considerate...
Aren't they? Things were not as they seemed as the audience were finding their opinions of them shifting throughout Shoplifters, or Manbiki Kazoku as it was known in its original Japanese, quite deliberately having the rug pulled from under them by director Hirokazu Koreeda, not once but multiple times. This could have created a mood of confusion, but in effect was designed to reassess your prejudices and realise there was more than one side to any situation, something you may have been aware of anyway without this film telling you, but then again the tone was never condescending even if finally you may be uncertain of how Koreeda himself felt about his characters.
Certainly he felt sympathy for the two younger members of the family, though we are suspicious early on of how connected by blood they actually are, rightly so as it becomes apparent this is not a collection of relations, it is a gathering of waifs and strays who find solace and power in their own union when the rest of society would dismiss them. This compassionate contemplation of a traditionally shunned underclass was nothing new in cinema, it was the basis for all sorts of realist movements down the decades after all, but there was a sense this director was not necessarily going to allow them a free pass to the audiences' hearts, and they had to earn our respect and attention.
One aspect was non-ambiguous, the little girl Osamu finds and names Lin, though she claims her name is Yuri (Miyu Sasaki): she was purposefully intended to tug on the heartstrings pretty blatantly, a tiny moppet who we quickly learn was not out there in the cold because she was lost, but because she had been abandoned by abusive parents. As the Shibatas initially accept this new arrival, their supposed amorality is countered by the way they tend to the child and note the scars on her arms where she has been attacked by her mother, all of which lead them - and us - to believe she is better off with these criminals when they wouldn't dream of allowing any harm to come to the girl. Osamu reasons their shoplifting isn't a crime because the stuff they nick wasn't claimed by anyone yet, and that explains why he keeps the girl.
If her parents didn't want her, why not give her a good home? Ah, but then we are already questioning whether this is a good home she has landed in, and Koreeda made great play of testing our emotions when we are justifiably concerned for the most vulnerable character in the film. Were these people as good as they made out, or in their own view of themselves, at least? It depended on your point of view, as we see each of them behave lovingly to one another or even to someone outside their circle - sex worker "daughter" Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) feels terribly sorry for one of her clients, and comforts him, for instance - though perhaps the most moving sequence had the "mother" Noboyu (Sakura Andô) teaching Lin that love means hugs, it doesn't mean getting battered about by your parents. The eventual revelations were a shade too manipulative and stark given what had gone before, but this was a thoughtful work with a big heart yet a bigger take on harsh, complex truths. Music by Haruomi Hosono.
Japanese director who has made both documentaries and dramas for Japanese TV as well as turning in some affecting feature films. Maborosi (1995) was a powerful study of a young woman coming to terms with her husband's suicide, Afterlife (1998) took an inventive look at life-after-death, while 2001's Distance deals with terrorism and sacrifice and I Wish a wistful tale of childhood. Our Little Sister gently developed his interest in the power of memories and in 2018, he was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his troubling, emotional drama Shoplifters.