When a Japanese director wins the Palme d’Or — the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival, the film world’s equivalent of soccer’s World Cup — the response of the local media is to celebrate: Our side won.

Making the victory sweeter for Hirokazu Kore-eda in his sixth Cannes appearance, with the family drama “Shoplifters,” was his film’s underdog status: Despite ranking high in the critics’ poll of Cannes competition films conducted by Screen International magazine, “Shoplifters” was largely ignored in speculation about the probable Palme victor (Japanese media, of course, excepted).

“We were completely bowled over by ‘Shoplifters.’ How intermeshed the performances were with the directorial vision,” jury president Cate Blanchett told the press in explaining the jury’s decision. “It was one of the quietest, loveliest and most emotionally enduring films in the competition,” she added.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)
Run Time 120 mins.

On sitting down to watch this first Japanese Palme d’Or winner since Shohei Imamura’s “The Eel” in 1997, I was determined to resist the hype and view it as another of the director’s many family dramas, including the underappreciated gem “Still Walking” (2008), the box-office hit “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) and the good-but-flawed “After the Storm” (2016).

But this film about an ersatz family struggling in the shadows in today’s Japan rivals Kore-eda’s best work to date, the thematically similar “Nobody Knows” (2004). The cheers are entirely deserved.

Both films are outwardly naturalistic in dialogue and structure: The characters of “Shoplifters” speak in everyday language that sounds less scripted than taped, as one incident of thievery and chicanery leads to the next, with little obvious plotting.

But Kore-eda, who trained as a documentary filmmaker and once aspired to be a novelist, inserts lines that illuminate and pierce, while masterfully building to a climax stronger in reflection than the moment. Films centered on a mystery typically go for the big reveal (the hero is really a ghost, for example); with “Shoplifters” the mystery deepens after the credits roll, with no single interpretation being correct.

The film’s “family” consists of Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer; his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works at a factory-like laundry; her younger half-sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who strips for unseen clients at a sex shop; and the elderly Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), who illegally draws her late husband’s pension and contributes it to the family coffers. Even Shota (Kairi Jyo), a sharp-eyed boy whom Osamu has trained in the finer points of shoplifting, chips in his takings. But they are still living from paycheck to paycheck — and theft to theft.

As the film begins, a lost, abused little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), wanders into their lives. Rather than report her to the police they take her in — and she soon joins Osamu and Shota in their shoplifting forays.

Despite their hardscrabble, larcenous lifestyles, Osamu, Nobuyo and the others are close in ways that belong to an earlier, more naturally human era — no one stares zombie-like at their smartphone. Instead they co-exist mostly peacefully and intimately in Hatsue’s ramshackle house and, on a summer trip to the beach, play together with carefree joy.

But we are also aware, from early on, that the family is not what it seems. Shota refuses to call Osamu “Dad” and Nobuyo “Mom,” while Shota and Nobuyo drop hints that they are keeping up a front and hiding secrets.

Those secrets come out, as they must, but for all its twists, the story is more than about masks dropping. The feelings the family members have for each other are real, as are the kindnesses done and the sacrifices made. The family, for all its lies and crimes, is not completely fake or evil. But the members can also never escape the darkness of their pasts.

“Shoplifters” ends with a last, poignant image that feels captured rather than staged. And yet its sums up everything the film has been saying, with eloquence poetic and plain, about the human condition — midway, as Plotinus once put it, between the gods and the beasts.

Kore-eda’s film in his own words

Fresh from his Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival for his family drama “Shoplifters” last month, director Hirokazu Kore-eda appeared at a full-house screening of the film that took place at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo on June 6. Here is a sampling of the answers he gave at the post-screening Q&A session:

“The script wasn’t based on an actual incident. Instead it was based on incidents occurring in recent years that had something to do with “family.” The phrase “a family connected only by crime” occurred to me so I made the set-up of a family that had come together not out of kindness, but for the purpose of money, with pension fraud as a base.”

“When I visited an orphanage (for research), a little girl took the (Leo Lionni) picture book “Swimmy” out of her backpack and suddenly started to read it. The staff tried to stop her, telling her she was bothering us, but she read it to the end. Everyone, including the staff, was moved and applauded her. She looked so happy. I thought she really wanted to read that book to her parents. I couldn’t get her out of my head and wrote a scene reflecting that moment.”

“When I was working in TV, a senpai (senior) told me that I should make my program for one person, be it my mother or a friend or anyone. … I made this film for the little girl I’d heard reading ‘Swimmy.'”

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