For close to two decades now, the Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda has brought a new film to Cannes every year, working subtle, skilful variations on his signature theme of lopsided families. In most of these years, Kore-eda has had to be content with critical acclaim, a healthy smattering of sales to international distributors eyeing classy matinee fare, and perhaps the occasional consolation prize; in 2018, amid a reportedly competitive field, he went and won the Palme d'Or. So what's changed? For one, the family unit at the centre of Shoplifters is stragglier (and thus more relatable?) than the serenely elegant salarymen and women who've come before. The Shibatas are a loose-knit working-class collective who supplement their daily labours with a variety of side hustles, including - as that title flatly notes - claiming five-finger discounts from the food and toy stores of their quiet Tokyo neighbourhood. As we join them, roguish middle-aged patriarch Osamu (Lily Franky) has finessed this dubious skill into a properly Dickensian operation, running son Shota (Jyo Kairi) through drills to improve efficiency. The clan soon has a new acquisition, however, in Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a grubby preschooler father and son find hiding behind some bins, having ducked out of another of her parents' arguments. She, too, becomes a willing apprentice, only for news to break that those parents are being investigated over her disappearance. Slowly, Kore-eda circles back to one recurring concern (how families are composed) while opening a file on another: whether taking something that isn't yours, be that a child or a bag of crisps, can ever be fully justified.
In terms of direction, nothing much has altered: again, Kore-eda proceeds with that reflective, self-effacing style that unfailingly puts story and character first. True, the living quarters we peer in at through Ozu-esque screen doors are rather more cluttered with the spoils of the Shibatas' swiping; and the family's proximity to the poverty line ensures Shoplifters rubs up against some unusually adult material. (One character turns towards sex work to help make ends meet, and it's the first Kore-eda I can recall to feature male and female nudity, thus arguably more in line with European tastes.) Yet even when positioning this clan as a ragbag of oddballs and outcasts, the direction never extends beyond a very familiar naturalism: it's just Kore-eda happens to be observing some especially vivid personalities, that's all. It has long been established that Kore-eda is one of the great directors of children: here, he casts entirely adorable creatures in young Kairi and Sasaki, then allows them the creative freedom to play something close to themselves, rather than forcing them into the brattishly precocious poses we'd be stuck watching in any American remake. Yet he also sketches brisk portraits of everybody else under this roof: the loping, giggling father figure, both amused and surprised by his own prowess, the fact he's been allowed to get away with this lifestyle so long; his lusty, sweaty partner-in-crime Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), in whom the new arrival stirs previously unfelt maternal feelings; the eccentric grandmother (Kirin Kiki, in one of her final roles before her death this September) insistently screwing up her features and trailing nail clippings in her wake.
Such portraiture takes time, and again you may be confounded by the way a Kore-eda film creeps up on you. Shoplifters refuses to push through the missing-kid plot in the way a commercial drama or thriller would - the police are barely to be seen - and it remains oddly blithe about the shoplifting: it's just something these folk do to get by, though dad comes up with a noble-sounding philosophy in pointing out it's better to steal from stores (when these items are nobody's property) than when they've been bought and paid for. For an hour at the movie's centre, there is next to no narrative development to report: we simply hang out chez Shibata, note the floating of certain motifs (hugging, which takes; fishing, which doesn't really), watch the youngsters grow up a little, and overhear an unexpectedly charming birds-and-bees talk. Only in the final half-hour is the situation advanced, with a sudden flurry of revelations that usher us into a very different film and a very different understanding of the main characters. Here, I sensed Kore-eda relying heavily on the skill of his performers (Ando especially) and our affection for these people to smooth the film's progress from slightly under-complicated to vaguely over-complicated; he's not wrong to do that, but overall I think I preferred Our Little Sister's slow and steady drip of information. Such risky scripting strategies may be what ultimately differentiates Shoplifters from the back catalogue, though I wondered whether that Palme wasn't the result of the same kind of accumulation we witness going on within this director's work - that just as Kore-eda has habitually provided us with small, quiet gestures that somehow add up to cinema, he's now made enough small, quiet films founded on those gestures to tip a jury in his favour. Reservations aside, no-one else in the upper echelons of world cinema is making these kinds of movies - and certainly no-one else is making them this well.
Shoplifters is now playing in selected cinemas.