Earlier this year I reviewed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s film The Third Murder. Departing from his traditional style, the main issue I had was that with this change, some of the greater emotional depth of his prior work did not quite make the transition. Now, within the same year (in the UK at least) he returns to familiar ground with Shoplifters, and with it comes the cementing of Kore-Eda as one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers, living or dead.

Opening with apparent father and son, we see Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) fulfilling the film’s title. Afterwards they find Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a five year old girl freezing on a balcony and decide to take her in. From here we meet their unorthodox extended family living in a ramshackle domicile, at which point the film becomes less about plot and more about seeing these individuals simply try and get by in their undesirable circumstances. Osamu finds inconsistent work as a day labourer, his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) struggles to make hours at a low-paying job, while matriarch Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is apparently collecting a compensation of some description related to her deceased husband.

Kore-Eda’s nuanced understanding of family and relationships is in abundance here. The relationships between the individuals of this family are complex and seemingly contradictory in nature. Indeed the film does appear to ask some pertinent questions on ideas of morality and what is right or wrong. Osamu clearly displays love and warmth towards Shota, yet he teaches him the art of theft and effectively co-opts him into that lifestyle when he is too young to make decisions for himself. The family have effectively rescued Yuri from an abusive household, but was that their decision to make? Within this family we see that individuals are capable of both supporting and loving each other, while also acting selfishly or exploiting them for personal gain. Yet they live in apparent happiness, not at all what would be expected from an impoverished household, but is this happiness true when it’s built on such a foundation?

The film does not intend to answer these questions. Events are not viewed with objectivity as they are from the perspective of family members, instead providing illuminating insight and creating pause for thought. In fact I was quite surprised to reflect after the screening and noted that I didn’t view the act of them stealing in various forms to be wrong, the characters justifying their actions within this microcosm of modern living. Only when wider context is shown does their behaviour create a sense of unease, a difficult reminder that while the circumstances are undesirable, it does not free them from blame.

As an active filmmaker for close to thirty years, Kore-Eda has reached a level of effortless mastery with his work, and this latest effort is reminiscent of the works of Yasujiro Ozu (indeed, some instances of shot reverse shot here appear to be direct nods towards the late master’s cinematic motifs) whilst still retaining its own distinct sense of identity. Shoplifters is a modern successor to the style of contemplative drama that Ozu showed a mastery of, while displaying the tenderness that has come to define the works of Hirokazu Kore-Eda.

Shoplifters was released in the UK on 23rd November 2018.