Stealing and Healing in Downtown Tokyo

A review of Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters)

Simon Paxton, Rikkyo University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 2 (Film review 1 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 10 September 2019.


Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Actors: Lily Franky Sakura Andō, Kirin Kiki
Released: 2018
Run time: 2h1min

Koreeda Hirokazu’s award winning film, Manbiki Kazoku, tells the story of an impoverished Japanese family living in downtown Tokyo who supplement their disadvantaged lifestyle by shoplifting. From the title, one would expect the story to revolve around the illegal shoplifting exploits of the family, but in reality, what unfolds is an endearing yet melancholic story of an unusual family who have formed special relationships.

The film begins with Shōta (Kairi Jyo) and Osamu (Lily Franky) heading home after having been about their usual shoplifting shenanigans. On their way home, they encounter Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), a little girl that has been left on her own. They offer her some food and take her home with them. Everything starts out as very innocent at first. However, they soon discover marks on Yuri’s body that suggest she has been the victim of child abuse. Despite this, Nobuyo (Andō Sakura) and Osamu try to do the right thing and return Yuri to her mother. As they draw nearer to Yuri’s apartment, they overhear Yuri’s mother shouting and arguing with someone. Unable to bring themselves to return Yuri to this abusive environment, they take her home with them again. This sets the stage for a series of events that will eventually lead to the family’s sad and unfortunate demise.

The success of the film and its slew of awards, including the prestigious Palme d'Or award from the Cannes Film Festival,is in some respects unsurprising when you consider the line-up of actors. Andō Sakura, from movies such as 100 Yen Love and the recent NHK TV series Manpuku, who plays Nobuyo, the wife and surrogate mother of the family, is superb. The recently deceased Kiri Kiki plays Hatsue, the owner of the house, and is, as usual, wonderful. Moreover, Lily Franky, Matsuoka Mayu, and the two children actors, Kairi Jyo and Sasaki Miyu, all provide marvelous performances. While each actor’s individual performance is fantastic, it is in the collaborative effort that the acting really shines.

It soon becomes clear that the shoplifting family is not, in a traditional sense at least, a family at all. Despite this, their close-knit relationships fill an emotional void that help them to transcend past emotional scars. Perhaps the most notable relationship is between Nobuyo and Yuri. The loneliness and abuse which Yuri has been subjected to is something with which Nobuyo seems to relate, although this is never made explicit. The bond between them grows strong. On a summer night, while sitting outside on the engawa, a small Japanese-style veranda, Nobuyo affectionately embraces Yuri and comforts her: “you know when they tell you that they hit you because they love you? That is not true. When you love someone, you do this instead (hugging).” Yuri has found the love and affection that was lacking in her own home.

While the acting is stellar, the director, Koreeda Hirokazu, should be applauded for crafting a film that is heartwarming, thought-provoking and authentic. Koreeda clearly went to great lengths to present a story that comes across as natural, spontaneous and believable.

The cluttered unkempt interior of the house, the filthy fusuma (Japanese-style sliding door), the old and grimy bathroom, and the sound of fireworks from Sumida River in downtown Tokyo, are all important details that contribute to the authentic feel of the movie. The family’s living conditions also speak to their predicament but are believable at the same time. Family members share futons, and Shōta uses the oshiire (Japanese-style closet) as a makeshift bedroom. Koreeda also masterfully uses seasonal references throughout the movie to convey the passage of time.

In the midst of this poverty and squalor, the shoplifting family still manages to share moments of joy, laughter and affection.It is this seemingly contradictory set of circumstances that prompts viewers to question their own values. What value do money and possessions have if families cannot replicate similar acts of love and affection in their own family? And what about the concept of right and wrong? After all, while the family has kidnapped a child in the eyes of the law, have they not rescued a child from an abusive household? Does the end not justify the means? It is difficult not to feel compassion for the characters in the family, despite their somewhat questionable actions.

The ending of the movie has a certain Japanese quality that leaves the viewer with unanswered questions and no sense of resolution. Given the content of the movie and the flow of events that take place, the ending seems appropriate, albeit a little tragic.

Is, then, this story really about a shoplifting family, or something much more? Some people will be left wondering why all the fuss is about shoplifting when it is only a small, almost insignificant part of the film. An alternative title which did not reference shoplifting may have sufficed. In any case, the film is well-deserving of its many accolades and provides a unique look at another side of Japanese society.

About the Author

Simon Paxton is an English language lecturer at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, Japan. He has an MA from Saitama University in Japanese and Asian Studies, and a PhD from Macquarie University in International Studies. His main research interest is in kanji acquisition for non-kanji background learners of Japanese.

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