Japanese novel review: “Shoplifters” (万引き家族) by Hirokazu Kore-eda (是枝裕和)

By | September 23, 2019

I can’t think of too many Japanese movies that become popular enough in the U.S. to the extent that they come up in casual conversation. “Shoplifters”––written, directed, and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda (是枝裕和)––is one exception. In fact, it has grossed over $2 million dollars in the U.S., making it one of the most popular foreign films of 2018.

I heard there was a novelization of “Shoplifters”, so I decided to try it out first. Even though it seems the novel was written after the movie, I felt there might be more to the book than the movie (and frankly, I’m more of a book person anyway).

I ordered it online at Kinokuniya and had it delivered to their Beaverton store where I picked it up. Surprisingly, it came in only a few days, even though they initially said it was out of stock and would take longer.

Not having even seen a trailer of the movie, I knew very little of what it was about, except it involved a family of shoplifters. By the way, the Japanese title is 万引き家族, which literally means “Shoplifter Family”. Indeed, one of the first scenes in the book involves a father and son shoplifting together, and later parts of the book involve shoplifting as well.

But, to be honest, I felt the “family” element was much more important than the “shoplifting” element. A large part of the book revolves around the interactions of the various family members, and their relationships are complex, to say the least.

Even though there is another way to interpret the title (which I won’t go into here), I still think it was not the best fit for this book. That’s why I was somewhat relieved to see a note in the afterward by Hirokazu Kore-eda himself that said he actually considered another title at one point in time. There’s more to the story, but I feel that “万引き家族” was chosen mainly for marketability (which itself is an important thing). But it’s unfortunate that the “family” part was removed completely for the title of the English movie, although the movie posters I’ve seen make it clear a family is involved.

Besides my issue with the title, another weak point was slow pacing in a few parts; it would be a lie to say I was strongly compelled to keep reading. I didn’t seriously consider stopping because the movie was so popular and I thought it would get better eventually. I was right––at some point it got really good and I thoroughly enjoyed the ending. (Note: my comments about pacing should be taken with a grain of salt since my reading speed in Japanese is slower than in English, and native speakers may not feel the same way)

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from what I gather it’s very similar to the book and it seems like it would be a very enjoyable movie. However, based on a small (but important) detail I heard about the movie’s ending, I might actually prefer how the book ends.

The Japanese in the book is relatively easy, with straightforward sentence structure and very few uncommon kanji.  “Shoplifters” is also pretty slim on description (which can be difficult to parse by Japanese learners) and heavy on dialogue.

What I really liked about the dialogue of this book was the frequent use of slang contractions and other expressions that you might not see in an average Japanese textbook. For example things like “やってっから” (short for “やってるから”) and さみい (short for さむい). This is not too surprising because the novel was probably made by referencing the movie script, but it’s a nice resource for those studying Japanese.

There are many references to things in daily life––drying out clothes on a veranda, going to a pachinko parlor, eating traditional Japanese food––and these often culturally-relevant events further increase the value of this book for Japanese learners. Ironically, I think it is the slow pacing that allows this focus on everyday things; after all, with too much action it’s hard to slow down and smell the roses. This sense of the everyday is one of the charms of this movie.

For these reasons, I highly recommend “Shoplifters” for any intermediate-advanced learners of Japanese. The reason I don’t suggest the book to beginning students is that you will still need a strong base of jouyou kanji (several hundred characters) to get through the book with a lot of kanji lookup.

You may have noticed I said almost nothing about the plot of the book. That was intentional because (like my other reviews) I’m generally pretty sensitive about spoilers. For this book especially, I think my lack of pre-knowledge of the story increased my appreciation level. I will say that there were some touching scenes showcasing interactions of the various family members, though.

By the way, after finishing the book I discovered the director has made several other award-winning movies, and I had seen several other of his movies. I reviewed one of them on this blog in 2014. Also, a few aspects of “Shoplifters” reminded me of his movie “誰も知らない” (Nobody Knows).

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