I did not grasp all the richness of this film on my first viewing in the cinema. As a rule I make a point of not reading the reviews or synopsis before seeing a film. What struck me in the first instance is the humanist approach to deprived people and the cinematography. Kore-Eda does not judge the shoplifters and the cinematography is very complex.
The colours match the mood of the images: Vibrant colours in the supermarket and dark ones in the house, brilliant orange and gold on the young boy reading quietly and washed up blue grey of the last hours of the grandmother. The takes are very studied: long shots outside the house, closeups of faces in emotional personal sequences, peeping shots with dark panels on each side of the screen, and very occasional 4th wall shots that involve the viewer.
But I would like here to focus on the complex representation of the old woman as grandmother.
In Make way for Tomorrow and In Tokyo Story there are grandmother and grandchild relationships. In the first film this is important in the narrative, but in the second it is incidental. Recently there have been two films with grandmothers as main characters: Poetry (2019) and The Farewell (2019). In Poetry the old woman looks after her teenage grandson to help her daughter. In The Farewell it is the thought of the death of the grandmother that urges the extended – across countries- family to get together.
I have not seen all of Kore-Eda’s films but the old woman is present in a few of them: in After Life, there are two old women. One is rather confused and mixes her memories of childhood in time and place. The other is serene and just enjoys nature. In Still Walking the grandmother, bitter with grief over her son’s death has next to no relationship with her grandchildren or indeed her husband. She is seen mainly as provider of delicious old fashioned home cooking and reminiscences of the good old days. In After the Storm, the grandmother has just lost a gambler husband. She has a rich social life but wishes she had a more comfortable home. Her daughter and grandchildren visit her regularly. Her son is wasting his life gambling and he neglects his son who admires his grandmother for her intelligence. It is in the grandmother’s home and through her intervention (and the storm’s) that he comes to terms with his divorce and decides to reform.
In Shoplifters the role of grandmother is explored to the full. The family is not a conventional blood-related one but a group of deprived people who live illegally from the old woman’s pension and by stealing. In this group made up of a couple (Osamu and Nobuyo), a young woman Aiki, and two abducted children Shota (little boy), and Yuri ( abducted because she is mistreated by her mother), the older woman is called throughout Grandmother. How does Kore-eda represent the grandmother? She is the head of the made-up family and dies after the happiest family scene at the seaside. After her death her family is dismantled. She is present in many scenes where she is seen as a complex individual. In this group who eat together often she is not the cook but the head of the family.
As the provider she finances the family with her pension but also with an allowance given to her by the son of the second wife of her father. After her death the family finds her savings…
As the keeper of the home she arranges to receive the official representative (social worker or estate agent?) in a very cramped uncomfortable
As the head of the family she criticises the adult male Osamu for not earning a living for the family and is even rude to him. But she makes sure that he takes a flask to work. She also offers him a box of sweet beans when she returns from an outing and he warns her of the danger of slipping on the ice.
Aiki is her favourite and is not expected to contribute to the household. Grandmother is tolerant of Aiki’s job in a peepshow. There is a certain feeling of complicity and warmth between Aiki and Grandmother. You know everything , don’t you Grandma? This is conveyed mainly in the acting.
The three women and Yuri form a cohesive women group in the shop where they steal outfits for Yuri. With Yuri, she is the traditional image of grandmotherhood. She blows on hot food for her. She has a traditional remedy for bed wetting and teaches the child how to apologise. She tends to the child’s burns and makes the pain disappear.
As friend to Nobuyo she discusses with her the advantages of a made up family compared to a blood related one. At the beach she confides in her. When the rest of the family is having noisy fun in the water, she declares that she fears the situation cannot last. In her last hours she tell her how beautiful she is.
From time to time we see her in the conventional image, sitting on the floor mending children’s clothes but she is also partial to a bit of gambling on the machines. Over a drink in the evening she recollects her past.
One night Uri wakes up the household to declare that she has lost a tooth. The whole family finds that Grandmother died quietly in her sleep.