Written and directed by Hirokazu Kora-eda, Shoplifters relies heavily on the individual personalities of its six lead characters and the unique rapports each of these six people have with one another. Just like snowflakes, no two dynamics between these lead characters are the same, the relationship between Osamu & Hatsue, for instance, is quite different from the relationship Osamu has with Shota or the relationship Aki has with Nobuyo. There's clear variety in how these individuals interact with one another in even the simplest of exchanges and this trait is one of many ways Kora-eda's screenplay communicates the separate personalities of these individuals to the audience in an outstanding manner.
Shoplifters is a tremendous accomplishment as a film all around, but the way it brings its assorted characters to life through something as simple as how the characters interact with one another in simple conversations is especially impressive to me. Through these dialogue exchanges, one can clearly see that everyone in the main cast feels like they walked right out of reality itself. Just like real people, they carry frequent contradictions in their personality, they carry a sense of humor that allows them to be silly with one another and most importantly, these characters carry empathy. Empathy is the heart and soul of Shoplifters, it's what motivated Osamu to bring Shota into their family years ago just as it urged Osamu & Nobuyo to help Lin however they could.
Though they're prone to selfish bouts of behavior in times of extreme duress, this chosen family at the center of Shoplifters primarily exercise selfless behaviors that bring these disparate individuals together. Even the act of shoplifting from local stores is rooted in a sense of selfless as it's something Osamu has taught Shota how to do because he feels he has nothing else he can pass on to this youngster. The sincerely expressed sense of empathy and understanding that unites this group of human beings is realized in a captivating fashion that does an exemplary job of not only making one invested in these characters but also lends actual moral ambiguity to scenarios that might be otherwise coded in black-and-white terms (these characters do technically kidnap Lin, for instance).
This undercurrent of empathy between members of a chosen family runs throughout Shoplifters but it's represented in one particularly masterfully executed sequence. This sequence depicts Nobuyo cradling Lin as they watch one of her old shirts burn in a small fire, with Nobuyo reassuring the youngster that her parents were wrong to physically abuse Lin. Only the crackle of the fire burning accompanies the sound of Nobuyo, a woman who previously had a physically abusive husband, quietly reassuring this child the truth that "People who love you don't hit you". It's an outstandingly beautiful moment that subtly says so much about what these characters have gone through as well as clearly communicating what kind of emotional support the members of this chosen family provide one another.
In this emotionally gut-wrenching sequence, one also sees just how good director Hirokazu Kore-eda is at blocking actors in a shot. Osamu, Aki and Shota linger in the background of this intimate moment between Nobuyo and Lin and the way they're arranged here reminded me of the staging of characters in classic Orson Welles movies like Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles knew how to intricately position a number of individual people in a shot without crowding up the frame or distracting from key elements in the foreground and Kore-eda has the same type of gift. This thoughtful approach to arranging characters in a shot is one of the numerous ways Shoplifters impresses on a visual level, with a similarly thoughtful approach to visually balancing elements in the background and foreground occuring in a shot depicting a disgruntled Shota walking in the foreground while an exuberant Osamu excitedly chats away with Lin in the foreground. Both Shota's strained relationship with his surrogate father as well as Osamu growing closer to Lin are both communicated in this moment exquisitely simply by way of the way characters are arranged in a shot.
Here in this scene and throughout the whole movie, the direction and cinematography communicate as much about the individual characters and their relationships to one another as the script and performances. Speaking of performances, the cast does an excellent job utilizing the elements of nuance and empathy that drive so much of the rest of the movie. There's not a bad performance in the main cast but for me, the two most emotionally resonant performances come from Kirin Kiki and Sakura Ando. Kiki, in what (as near as I can tell) is her final film performance before her passing away in September 2018, kicks off her performance on a high note by portraying her character as simply a snippy no-guff presence in the household but she does a remarkable job unearth further layers to this character as the story goes along, particularly in her final few scenes that communicate melancholy tinged versions of woe and appreciation.
As for Sakura Ando, her work in her aforementioned big scene with Lin would be enough to cement her as one of my favorite performances in the whole movie, but that's only one example of what a phenomenal job she does in making Nobuyo such a fully-formed human being full of complex dimensions. Whatever various emotional stages Nobuyo goes through, Ando is there to realize them in an impressively authentic fashion. She's just as effective in portraying Nobuyo during a quietly heartbreaking interrogation sequence in the climax as she is in more light-hearted scenes like one where her character engages in a belching contest with Shota. Society may have discarded Nobuyo and the other members of her chosen family, but both Sakura Ando's magnificent performance and the similarly spectacular movie Shoplifters realize Nobuyo and the other five people she lives with are actual human beings worthy of being treated like people.