[This article was originally written as an assignment for my degree.]
Before SHOPLIFTERS, my only exposure to the fringe of society life in Japan was TAMPOPO. What is interesting for me is that both films frame the theme of poverty around children (also it is worth noting that both films treat eroticise food in a way that would get them censored in the west).
In TAMPOPO, the 1985 food-porn classic directed by Juzo Itami, in a quest to create the perfect Ramen dish, our heroes come across a group of homeless people living on the streets. The son and one of the homeless men break into a restaurant late at night and the man creates an omelette filled with rice for the small boy. The boy is taken aback by this creation of taste, something so simple has a lot underneath. The homeless man has shown him that even though he is living on the streets, it doesn’t mean he is without taste. The son is the surrogate for the audience, he is the gateway to a fringe society.
What Hirokazu Kore-eda does in SHOPLIFTERS is take that ‘gateway’ one step further. Kore-eda uses the children to create sympathy and empathy for the family. Shota and Yuri are 9 and 5 respectively. Shota was stolen from a car, but Osamu implies that he was saving him. The same can be said for Yuri, she is left outside in the cold, unwanted by her abusive parents. Osamu and Nobuyo save her, give her a bed to sleep in and give her a family that love her.
In TAMPOPO the son is brought into this world willingly; in SHOPLIFTERS, Yuri and Shota are brought into this world as though they are saved.
What Kore-eda does is have the children commit acts of shoplifting (Shota at the instruction of Osamu, Yuri does it because she copies Shota). The family themselves (even if they aren’t blood related, they are more of a family unit than Yuri’s parents) do have jobs, but struggle to make ends meet. The shoplifting is done so they can survive. Kore-eda makes the audience question their assumptions of those on the fringe, because of the children. Their house is hidden among towering apartment buildings, almost unnoticed. This is certainly a visual metaphor for how society has treated this family, and for how people view children.
When the secrets come out, notably after Shota deliberately gets caught to stop Yuri from getting spotted, Shota is placed in an orphanage and Yuri is sent back to her unloved home. Societal norms would argue that this is the way things should be, that they are where they belong. But the audience knows better. The last two shots with the children are the most telling.
Shota looks back behind the bus and mutters “Dad” to the left behind Osamu. Yuri peers over the edge of the balcony, and for a brief second before Kore-eda cuts to black, her eyes widen. The innocence for both Shota and Yuri was, I’d argue, cruely and unfairly taken away when they were removed from the family. But the last moments the audience spends with the two children, restores that innocence.