If Charles Dickens were alive and living in Tokyo, he no doubt would write something very much like “Shoplifters,” a modern spin on “Oliver Twist” in which a multigenerational clan of miscreants tries their illegal best to fend off an unaccepting society insistent on kicking them to the side of the road. Alas, ol’ Boz is no more, but Hirokazu Kore-eda will do quite nicely in his stead, serving as writer-director of what is undoubtedly one of the two or three best films of the year.

Like the lion’s share of Kore-eda’s mini-masterpieces, “Shoplifters” – his pinnacle – is about family and all the unconventionality that concept inspires. There’s a mom and dad, and a grandma and auntie, each pitching in to raise two children, but that’s where normality ends and amorality begins. From the start, an air of intriguing mystery hovers. Who are these people? Why do they live in a dilapidated hut in the middle of a bustling metropolis? And why are they so seemingly happy when they have every reason not to be?

Kore-eda is careful and deliberate in revealing the answers; meaning patience is required. But the eventual rewards are well worth the investment. Just trust the fact that you’re in the presence of a master at the top of his storytelling game, and one not afraid to challenge your every expectation. And he wastes no time putting you to the test in an opening scene showing a dad, Osamu (Kore-eda regular, Lily Franky) and his 12-year-old son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), exactingly pilfering food stuffs from a neighborhood grocery, ala Fagin and the Artful Dodger, albeit a far more genial version.

Are we to empathize, or be repulsed? You choose, but know that it won’t be the first time you’ll be asked to decide. In fact, it’s only a matter of minutes until the next moral quandary arises with the discovery of a scrawny – but adorable – 5-year-old girl (Miyu Sasaki) huddled alone and shivering in the dark. Unsure what to do, Osamu brings her home to his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), her younger sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and their granny, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki, another Kore-eda regular), who are already short on room and food.

Nobuyo insists on taking the child back to where Osamu found her, but when they do, the situation dictates that they don’t. Does this now make them kidnappers? Technically, yes. But morally, no, at least in their eyes; a decision reinforced once they spot the awful burn marks on the tiny arms of the girl they now call Yuri. Besides, she’d make a terrific decoy on Osamu and Shota’s shoplifting sprees, especially after the latter twists his ankle at his part-time construction job and is put out of commission.

The wickets only get stickier as Kore-eda’s somewhat fact-based tale unfolds in gloriously unexpected directions, raising even more questions while revealing ever darker secrets involving the origins of this appealing den of thieves. And as Kore-eda peels back the layers, we’re left to contemplate, examine and confront what constitutes a family. The answer is rooted in the old nature vs. nurture conundrum, but Kore-eda digs much deeper by adding in the environmental factors, such as domestic abuse, betrayals and poverty exacerbated by a society eager to exclude those unable to conform to its rigid templates.

At times, you’re unsure of where Kore-eda is taking you, but when it’s time to make his points about the pricelessness of unconditional love, it smacks you upside the face so hard it leaves you dazed, not to mention profoundly moved. Kore-eda is sneaky that way, and we’re all the better for it. So are his talented stable of actors, each allotted ample opportunity to shine, whether it’s the recently deceased Kirin Kiki expressively expressing gratitude for the family refusing to let her Hatsue die alone; Matsuoka’s Aki struggling to find dignity and connection as a sex worker; or Kairi’s Shota struggling to use labels like “Mom,” “Dad” and “sister” on the people he so wearily loves.

That last one really got me thinking about how adeptly the family dynamics in “Shoplifters” serve as a metaphor for society’s problem with legitimizing gay partnerships, and who has the right to say blood is thicker than love when it comes to making decisions involving quality of life? And it only evolves from there, as it occurs to you that this is no mere movie; it’s life itself, and all the messy heartbreak and beauty that entails. It’s very much a companion to Kore-eda’s last film, “After the Storm,” and its ideas of relationships defying explanations and parameters. We want what we want and love what we love, no matter the circumstances. It’s by no means easy, but it encompasses everything we know about being alive. And if we have to, like this sticky-fingered bunch, we’ll steal every bit of it we can.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Shoplifters”
Cast includes Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki, Mayu Matsuoka and Miyu Sasaki. In Japanese with English subtitles.
(R for some sexual content and nudity.)
Grade: A