What happens when you put the film Shoplifters next to a song from the band Talking Heads and musings about love by the 13th-century poet Rumi?
You burn down the house rules and discover joy and truth in the most unexpected places of the universe.
This is the best way to describe how I felt watching Shoplifters. All of the rules about right and wrong, good and bad, what we owe to each other in love and in relationships flies out the window. While this isn’t the intention of the acclaimed Japanese writer and director, Hirokazu Kor-eda, Hirokazu asks some pretty heavy questions with serious moral implications.
Photo credit: MANBIKI KAZOKU
This logic is the family’s ultimate downfall even though they continue to put one fire after another out.
The family celebrates time together and even takes a small vacation to the beach. Juri is happier than she’s ever been because she is safe from abuse. But small cracks start to appear as Shota’s jealousy over his new little sister builds. A series of events alert the police and they are called out.
This is where Talking Heads, a critically acclaimed American band from the 1980s, enters the picture. The band produced a hit called Burning Down the House that reminds me of Hirokazu craftsmanship in Shoplifters. Like each of the band members that take turns going up on stage to dance their part of the song, all of their stories in Shoplifters come together to tell a story about a “burning house.”
Hirokazu tears down a long list of these burning houses. We wonder about the rules of society that govern everything from a happy home and to a fair workplace. Have they burned down? What happens to a woman’s self-esteem when she works at a peep-show parlor and what should a child expect from a parent? Bigger questions ask what constitutes motherhood? Is it biological or should we need to prove our worthiness? Have we burned through our moral codes in the world, stealing when no one is looking or taking advantage of people because they can’t fight back?
Somehow Japanese customs and rules of law don’t seem to make nearly as much sense as the relationships forged by the Shoplifter family of imposters. Their love for each other and their happiness has nothing to do with birth rights or laws.
Hirokazu says his film is a series of stories stitched together from newspaper articles and a visit to an orphanage. But what of the economic conditions in Japan and the system of rules that protects the dysfunctional birthrights of parents? One in six children in Japan lives in poverty as do half of all single mothers. Regular employment with benefits is on the decline and death by overwork is a chronic problem because of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shino’s labor reforms. These reforms legalize 100 hours of overtime a month despite warnings by the Ministry of Health that this is unsafe.
The 13th-century poet and Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi said that “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
It’s impossible to watch the plight of young Shota or little Juri without feeling both relief and joy for their happiness within the family. Despite the morally suspect situations they are exposed to, we continue to root for all of Hirokazu’s characters. Something in our souls stirs.
Giving a child back to an abuser doesn’t make any more sense than teaching a kid to steal. But what happens if the state can’t protect us? It’s estimated that 150 million people are homeless worldwide and 1 of every 6 people in the U.S. face hunger. What responsibility do we have for each other?
These are clearly large gray areas in Hirokazu’s world and our larger global world. But maybe the spiritual philosophy of Rumi provides some insight: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”
Maybe the best we can do is go out to that field and listen to our soul. Our prayerful attention will tell us when to forgive and when to understand. On the day Hirokazu’s Shoplifter movie was released in Japan, a 5-year-old girl died from abuse. Inside her notebook, she had written to her parents asking them to stop abusing her. Every time she was removed from her home, she was returned until they finally killed her.
Shoplifters is an extraordinary film that helps us to see the fields. Perhaps it really is as simple as lying down and listening to our soul.
To see the official movie trailer: