In "Shoplifters," we meet two of the main characters as they ply the family trade in a Tokyo food market: Dad Osamu (Lily Franky) gives his young son Shota (Jyo Kairi) the high sign, blocking the view of a clerk while the boy snags as much merchandise as he can before running out of the store.
Is this a playful father-son lark or something more sinister? Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda leans into the ambiguity in a movie that feels cozy and affirming one moment, but then undergoes several intriguing shifts as new information comes to light. On their way home, Osamu and Shota encounter a little girl named Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), whom they bring home to feed and warm up. Soon, she's part of a tight-quartered family that includes Osamu's wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), Shota's sister, Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), and grandmother Hatsue (Kiki Kirin), the family matriarch, whose small house the family has colonized as squatters-with-benefits, despite having construction and laundry jobs in the city.
With its air of intimacy and fractious affections, "Shoplifters" feels like "The Borrowers" by way of Yasujiro Ozu, a discreetly observed drama about resourcefulness, loyalty and resilience in an era of obscene income inequality and a fatally frayed civic safety net. Although the protagonists here are liars, cheats and thieves, Kore-eda's sympathies are clearly with people he perceives as forced to subsist on what they can take from wealthier institutions. As one character notes in justifying the family trade, if the store they're robbing doesn't go bankrupt, who's being hurt?
But as "Shoplifters" proceeds, Kore-eda throws more troubling questions into the mix, so that a winsome film with nods toward "Oliver Twist" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" becomes something far more complex. In recent films like "Our Little Sister" and "Like Father, Like Son," Kore-eda has resorted to manipulation and melodrama to get the audience's attention and investment. Here, he harks back to his harrowing 2004 film "Nobody Knows," about a family of abandoned children, applying more rigor to a story whose ethical quandaries are presented with equal parts compassion and toughness.
The deeply flawed heroes of "Shoplifters" may not always be right. But they're not wrong, either, if only because they're willing to make their own contract with one another, after society has cruelly written them out.
Three stars. Rated R. Contains some sexuality and nudity. In Japanese with subtitles. 121 minutes