“Family Drama” is often said to be the mainstay of Japanese film. From Ozu to Koreeda, drama in the basic social unit has often been exploited to create a wider dialogue about society at large. However, In the wake of Yoshimitsu Morita’s condemnation of modern family values in The Family Game the nature of the conversation shifted. As Japan eased into its bubble era, concerns began to grow about what exactly the rise of consumerism meant for traditional values. Robinson on the Beach (砂の上のロビンソン, Suna no Ue no Robinson, AKA A Sandcastle Model Family Home) takes things one step further than The Family Game in that it repackages the entire idea of “the ideal family” as something that can itself be bought and sold and therefore manipulated as the perfect marketing tool.
At the beginning of the film, the Kidos are a fairly ordinary lower middle class family of five all living a modest apartment. They’re a little cramped – in fact so much so that mum and dad have to sneak into the wardrobe to get some alone time together just watching movies on a tiny TV set and sharing a set of earphones between them. The kids are always at each other’s throats but broadly they’re happy. However, when both husband Shouhei and wife Ryoko spot an advert for a new scheme which promises a “free” house to a “model family” they decide that this is their best chance at a new life. The deal does have a few drawbacks – they all have to play the part of a perfect family for a whole year and let the public into their lives to prove it.
Things were a little more innocent back in 1989. Reality TV hadn’t yet kicked in and the Kido’s don’t quite understand what it is they’re letting themselves in for when they agree to this too good to be true offer. The house they’ve been given is a veritable mansion – a huge, sprawling Western style home with a bedroom each for the children, a dedicated study for Shouhei and as many walk-in closets as anyone could wish for. However, the cars in the garage are only for show and even if the house is in the same general area as their old flat, Shouei still has to cram himself inside the sardine tin of the morning commuter train everyday just like before.
He does at least have the luxury of being allowed to leave the house, unlike Ryoko who becomes a bizarre “first lady” to this new show home empire expected to play a role somewhere between real estate agent and princess as she welcomes prospective buyers and allows them to poke and prod all over her nice new home spreading thinly veiled judgement wherever they go. Suddenly she has people going through her fridge and oggling her washing left hanging up to dry . The liaison lady from the company even has the gaul to criticise Ryoko’s nightwear as “frumpy” and orders her to buy something a little more glamorous which will match the “upmarket” appeal of the house.
After she gives in and does this she just has to listen as two visitors describe the new nightwear as “slutty” and wonder how a “respectable” wife could wear such a thing (it’s just a regular pink negligee nightdress, nothing unusual about it at all save for being a little more career woman than mumsy in appeal). In fact, the family’s new found circumstances only cause resentment in those around them and Ryoko in particular is plagued by nuisance callers who repeatedly accuse her of having prostituted herself to win the house.
In the economic reality of Tokyo at the time, there was just no feasible way a family like the Kidos would ever be able to afford to own their own house. They probably wouldn’t even be able to rent one or get anything bigger than the apartment they occupied at the beginning of the film. Shohei provokes the ire of his boss after moving into the show home because it’s already better than anything his boss could afford and he already owns a small home far out in the suburban commuter belt. Now everyone has it in for Shohei and he does get a kind of demotion as the company send him to demonstrate their “super slicer” kitchen gadget in a local department store. This is doubly worrying as Shohei is a very shy and nervous man who is not well suited to public speaking leaving the company’s excuse of making use of his new found celebrity as an ironic way of taking revenge on his jumping up the social order through unorthodox means.
All of these stresses gradually build up as even the children are subject to attacks from outside (and some of them very cruel and disturbing in nature). Before long this once happy family begins to buckle under the strain of pretending to be what they once really were. One particularly perverse episode sees them sitting down to a pre-scripted dinner while an audience of onlookers silently judge them as if they were engaged in some kind of performance art – which, of course, they are albeit almost unconsciously. Having gained everything they’d ever wanted, they discover that the costs far outweigh the benefits with Shohei hit hardest after he succumbs to a streak of selfish individualism that has dire consequences for everyone.
Eventually the value of the traditional family is reinforced as everyone starts to realise that the fancy house was never as important as the simple happiness they felt being crammed together in their tiny apartment. Though there is a hopeful resolution at the end, whether or not the damage can be repaired may be a matter for debate though the overriding message of caution about the corrupting influences of rampant consumerism including classism, petty jealousy and a growing tendency towards the voyeuristic is one which finds its way into many of the films from this period and is sadly still worth restating even today.
Not quite sure about the signifcance of the title with this one – think it refers to Swiss Family Robinson (rather than Robinson Crusoe) but it’s quite an awkward fit.
Scene from near the beginning of the film (with English subtitles):