Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Juzo Itami, 1997)

woman in witness protection posterJuzo Itami’s fearless taste for sending up the contradictions and hypocrisies of his home nation knew no bounds, eventually bringing him into conflict with the very forces he assumed so secure it was safe to mock – his 1992 film Minbo led to brutal attack by a gang of yakuza unhappy with how his film portrayed the world of organised crime. Woman in Witness Protection (マルタイの女, Marutai no Onna), continuing the “Woman” theme from previous hits A Taxing Woman and the more recent Supermarket Woman, would be Itami’s final feature as he died in mysterious circumstances not long after its completion and like Minbo it touched an open nerve. In 1997, crazy cult violence was perhaps no laughing matter nor as ridiculous as it might have seemed a few years earlier, yet Itami makes the actions of brainwashed conspirators the primary motivator of a self-centred actress’ gradual progress towards accepting the very thing his previous films might have satirised – her civic duty as a Japanese woman.

Itami breaks the film into a series of vignettes bookended by title cards beginning with the first which introduces us to our leading lady – Biwako Isono (Nobuko Miyamoto). Biwako is currently in rehearsals for an avant-garde play about giving birth (“a woman’s moment of glory”) during which she reduces her assistant to tears prompting her resignation, decrying Biwako’s self-centred bitchiness as she goes. Chastened, Biwako spends the evening doing vocal exercises outside her apartment which is how she comes to witness the botched murder of a lawyer by a crazed cultist (Kazuya Takahashi) during which she is almost murdered herself and only survives because the killer’s gun jams. As the only witness Biwako suddenly becomes important to the police which works well with her general need for attention but less so with her loathing for hassle. Seeing as Biwako is a famous actress, her involvement also precipitates increased press interest for the murder and accidentally threatens the ongoing police investigation not least because Biwako likes to play up for the camera and isn’t quite sure how best to deal with her divided responsibilities. With the killer still at large, the police decide to give Biwako protection in the form of two detectives – Chikamatsu (Yuji Murata), a cultured man who’s a big fan of Biwako’s stage career, and Tachibana (Masahiko Nishimura), a rather stiff gentleman who never watches films and rarely indulges in entertainment.

Bringing up cult violence in 1997 just two years after Japan’s only real terrorist incident perpetrated by a crazed cult, might be thought taboo but taboo was not something that Itami had ever run away from. Crazed cults had also popped up during A Taxing Woman’s Return though back then they mostly represented the hypocrisy of the new yakuza as a front for organised crime that thought nothing of bleeding vulnerable people dry while feeding them a lot of semi-religious claptrap to make them feel a part of something bigger while the bubble economy continued its puffed up attempts to make them feel inadequate. This time around our cultists are less well drawn but clearly a collection of unlucky people duped into believing the strange philosophies of the “Sheep of Truth” which teach that the world can only be saved by its followers dividing the world into white sheep and black sheep. Like the policeman and later Biwako, the killer believes he is only doing “that which must be done” in the best interests of the world. He is unaware of the cult’s shadiness and shocked when their lawyer threatens his family in an effort to convince him not to talk once the police have managed to break his programming, ironically through exactly the same methods – manipulating his feelings towards his wife and son.

The cult is however merely background to Biwako’s ongoing character drama. Despite experiencing emotional trauma from witnessing a murder and then being threatened herself, Biwako enjoys being the centre of the attention with the police as well as the warm glow she feels in being able to help them with their enquiries, but balks at the additional hassle of having to be involved in the trial (even if she would be given quite a sizeable platform as a witness in a high profile court case). She resents having the two policemen follow her around – especially as she has quite a busy schedule which includes an affair with her married manager. Nevertheless she gradually allows them into her life with Tachibana even making his stage debut as spear carrier in a production of Anthony and Cleopatra. Tachibana’s steadfast defence of her person even at the risk of his own life begins to teach Biwako a few things about civic responsibility and the importance of duty, even if her final moment of realisation is another of her staged set pieces in which she conjures a poignant monologue from the accidentally profound mutterings of Tachibana, a little of Cleopatra, and the earlier line from the maternity play repurposed as she affirms that testifying against the cultists will be her “moment of glory”.

Rather than end on Biwako’s sudden moment of enlightenment, Itami cuts to an ironic epilogue in which a police detective watching the movie we have just seen complains about its authenticity while emphasising that no one in protective custody has ever been attacked. A little tongue in cheek humour from Itami that is followed by the more usual disclaimer before the credits resume, but perhaps anticipating another dose of controversy from both law enforcement and cult devotees. Lighter in tone and noticeably less surreal than some of Itami’s earlier work, Woman in Witness Protection is the story of a vacuous actress learning the purpose of her stage as her particular brand of artifice meets that of the less innocently self-centred cultists head on and eventually becomes the best weapon against it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Juzo Itami, 1987)

A Taxing Woman posterIn bubble era Japan where the champagne flows and the neon lights sparkle all night long, even the yakuza are incorporating. Having skewered complicated social mores in The Funeral and then poked fun at his nation’s obsession with food in Tampopo, Juzo Itami turns his attention to the twin concerns of money and collective responsibility in the taxation themed procedural A Taxing Woman (マルサの女, Marusa no Onna). Once again starring the director’s wife Nobuko Miyamoto, A Taxing Woman is an accidental chronicle of its age as Japanese society nears the end of a period of intense social change in which acquisition has divorced mergers, and individualism has replaced the post-war spirit of mutual cooperation.

Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto), a single mother and assistant in the tax office, has a keen eye for scammers. She demonstrates this on a stakeout with a younger female colleague in which she keeps a shrewd eye on the till at her local cafe and comes to the conclusion that they’ve been running a system where they don’t declare all of their cheques. Running her eyes over the accounts of a mom and pop grocery store, she notices some irregularities in the figures and figures out the elderly couple feed themselves from the supplies for the shop but don’t “pay” themselves for their own upkeep. That might seem “perfectly reasonable” to most people, but it’s technically a small form of “embezzlement” and Ryoko doesn’t like figures which don’t add up. Seeing as the couple probably didn’t realise what they were doing was “wrong” she lets them off, this time, as long as they go by the book in the future. A more complicated investigation of a pachinko parlour finds a more concrete form of misappropriation, but Ryoko is fooled by the owner’s sudden collapse into inconsolable grief after being caught out and leaves him in the capable hands of his confused accountant.

Nevertheless, Ryoko may have met her match in sleezy corporate yakuza Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Dressing in a series of sharp suits, Gondo walks with a pronounced limp that hints at a more violent past but as his rival from the Nakagawa gang points out, violence is a relic of a bygone era – these days gangsters go to jail for “tax evasion” as means of furthering their “business opportunities” and facilitating ongoing political corruption. Gondo’s business empire is wide ranging but mainly centres on hotels, which is how he arouses Ryoko’s interest. She looks at the numbers, does a few quick calculations, and realises either the business isn’t viable or the correct figures aren’t being reported. Ryoko doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance and so she sets her sights on the seedy Gondo, but quickly discovers she has quite a lot in common with her quarry.

Itami was apparently inspired to make A Taxing Woman after the success of Tampopo shoved him into a higher tax bracket. Given Japanese taxes (at the time) were extremely high, getting around them had become something of a national obsession even if, in contrast to the preceding 30 years or so, there was plenty of money around to begin with. More than the unexpected tendency towards civil disobedience the times seemed to cultivate, Itami homes in on the increasingly absurd desire for senseless acquisition the bubble era was engendering. Thus Gondo who owns a large family home well stocked with symbols of his rising social status, also occupies a bachelor pad where he keeps a mistress which reflects the gaudy excess of the age right down to its random stuffed hyena. Nevertheless when one of the tax clerks asks for some advice as to how to have it all, Gondo replies that that’s easy – to save money, you simply avoid spending it. Gondo lets his glass run over and delights in licking the edges. It’s all about delayed gratification, apparently, and having a secret room full of gold bars to gaze at in order to relieve some of that anxiety for the future.

Gondo, like many of his ilk, has “diversified” – yakuza are no longer thuggish gangsters but incorporated organisations operating “legitimate” businesses through “illegitimate” means. Thus we first find him using a nurse who allows herself to be molested by an elderly, terminally ill client whose identity they will steal to found a company they can quickly dissolve when he dies to shift their assets around and avoid the tax man. Later he pulls another real estate scam by pressing a desperate family but his real focus is the love hotels, whose slightly embarrassing existence ensures that not many come poking around. Ryoko, however, is unlikely to let such a large scam slide and delights as much in closing loopholes as Gondo does in finding them. Noticing a kindred spirit, Gondo quite openly asks his new tax inspector “friend” what she’d think if he married his mistress, gave her all his money, and divorced her – divorce proceeds are after all tax free. Sounds great, she tells him, as long as you trust your wife not to skip town with all the doe.

Ryoko, a modern woman of the bubble era, single and career driven, is a slightly odd figure with her officious approach to her job and unforgiving rigour. Unlike her colleague who dresses in the glamorous and gaudy fashions of the times, Ryoko wears dowdy suits and her mentor boss is always reminding her about her “bed hair”, meanwhile she stays late at the office and offers instructions to her five year old son over the phone as to how to microwave his dinner. Though there is another woman working with her at the tax office, when she’s finally promoted to full tax inspector status she finds herself in a room full of guys who apparently hardly ever go home. On her first job she’s only really brought along because she’s a woman and they want to threaten a mob boss’ mistress with a strip search to find a missing key for a safety deposit box. The mistress, however, tries to throw them off the sent by publicly stripping off and encouraging them to check her “cavity” if they’re so keen to find this key, only for Ryoko to find it under the sink while all the guys are busy being shocked. Ryoko’s methods are occasionally as underhanded as Gondo’s and, like his schemes, built on gaming the system but she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with for those considering defrauding the Japanese government.

Gondo’s schemes excel because they aren’t entirely illegal, only clever ways of manipulating the system, but they’re also a symptom of a large conspiracy which encompasses improprieties right up the chain as banks, corporations, and politicians are all part of the same dark economy managed by a corporatising yakuza. Gondo takes frequent calls from a local representative who often “helps him out”. Later the same representative tries to put pressure on the tax office to back off, but Ryoko’s boss points out that he doesn’t need to because the press are already on the story so he should probably get started on his damage control rather than bothering public servants. Gondo and Ryoko, perhaps as bad as each other, lock horns in a battle wills but discover a strange degree of respect arising between them in having discovered a worthy adversary. There’s something undeniably absurd in Ryoko’s firm determination to catch out struggling businesses and the confused elderly with the same tenacity as taking on a yakuza fronted conspiracy, and there’s something undeniably amusing in Gondo’s attempts to beat the man by playing him at his own game, but the overall winner is Itami who once again succeeds in skewering his nation’s often contradictory social codes with gentle humour and a dispassionate, forgiving eye.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1992)

b27a8478bde0a2deBased on the contemporary manga by the legendary Fujiko F. Fujio (Doraemon), Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Mirai no Omoide: Last Christmas) is neither quiet as science fiction or romantically focussed as the title suggests yet perhaps reflects the mood of its 1992 release in which a generation of young people most probably would also have liked to travel back in time ten years just like the film’s heroines. Another up to the minute effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among his most inconsequential works, displaying much less of his experimental tinkering or stylistic variations, but is, perhaps a guide its traumatic, post-bubble era.

After a short segment set in 1971 in which one of our two heroines, Yuko Nando (Misa Shimizu), tells her classmates of her dream to become a best selling children’s author, we flash forward to 1981 where Yuko is a struggling artist unable to find success with her publishing company. A decade later, Christmas 1991, Yuko seems to have made little progress and despondently finds herself bonding with a mysterious woman offering a fortune telling service at the side of the road.

Ginko Kanae’s (Shizuka Kudo) life also seems to have spiralled downwards since 1981. A career as an office lady led to a fateful party after which another girl ended up going home with the guy she liked, and then she ended up being rebound married to the second choice salaryman she wound up with. Hence she’s reading fortunes on a less than busy side street at Christmas. The two women bond and swap phone numbers, but tragedy is about to befall them both as Yuko has a heart attack and dies at an office golf outing and Ginko has an accident on the way back from attending Yuko’s funeral. Never fear, the two women are soon cast back to 1981 with the next ten years of memories intact to help them make “better” choices and hopefully save their futures from ruin.

1992 was the start of a difficult era for Japan, the collapse of the bubble economy left behind it not just financial instability and social uncertainty, but a lingering feeling of foolishness and betrayal among those who’d been promised so much during the bubble years only to have the rug cruelly pulled from under them. It’s not surprising that many people of around Yuko and Ginko’s ages may have liked to travel back to 1981 and either relive the boom years or try and prevent the resultant tragedies from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s first pass at a do over sees them striving for conventional success, using their future knowledge to their advantage – Yuko by appropriating the idea of a popular 1991 manga to become an award winning artist, and Ginko becoming a financial guru. Both women come to feel conflicted about their “dishonest” choices which see them prosper unfairly, ironically robbing them of the chance to succeed as individuals in their own right and fulfil their own potential in the way they had always wanted to.

After each die at the same point and in the same way once again despite their financial successes, they get a second go, now with twenty years of hindsight to help them work out what’s really important. This time each chooses a path filled with more individual expression and the expectation of happiness. Romance is the name of the game as both women vow to spend more time with the men they love. However, having been through this once before Yuko and Ginko also have an expectation that their time will end once again in December 1991, meaning they feel conflicted about making a life with lovers they’ll be leaving behind. Gradually each starts to wonder if their fates are really as sealed as they fear them to be, or if they’ve been given this chance to start again precisely so that they can change their futures for the better.

In 1992, the idea that everything doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems might have been an important one, even more so than it is now. In the original timeline, Yuko and Ginko were, like many in the post-bubble world, victims of circumstance rather than people who’d actively made poor choices and the lessons which they learn are also those of their generation. Financial success is not everything, particularly if it’s gained in a “dishonest” way. More than changing their fates, Yuko and Ginko must first learn how to be happy which lies in self realisation, fulfilled potential, and, ironically, that their fate doesn’t matter so long as they live happily in the now.

Morita’s approach is again a timely one, filled with the music of the era (including a cover version of the title song from previous Morita hit, Main Theme), stock footage, and a curiously retro, nostalgia filled approach for a period that was only a decade earlier. Dissolves, slow motion and double exposures are his concessions to the sci-fi themes, but what he’s really interested in is capturing the essence of the era more so than crafting an emotionally affecting piece. Necessarily of its time, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among Morita’s weaker efforts but does serve to shine a light on early ‘90s pop culture as it found itself in a moment of profound self reflection.


Original trailer (no subtitles but lots of Christmas Cheer…and…Wham)

Sorekara (それから, AKA And Then, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1985)

Sorekara PosterYoshimitsu Morita had a long and varied career (even if it was packed into a relatively short time) which encompassed throwaway teen idol dramas and award winning art house movies but even so tackling one of the great novels by one of Japan’s most highly regarded authors might be thought an unusual move. Like a lot of his work, Natsume Soseki’s Sorekara (And Then…) deals with the massive culture clash which reverberated through Japan during the late Meiji era and, once again, he uses the idea of frustrated romance to explore the way in which the past and future often work against each other.

Daisuke (Yusaku Matsuda) is a youngish man approaching early middle age. Thirty years old and a “gentleman” of leisure, he lives in a world of perpetual ennui where he even has to hold his hand to his chest to check that his heart is indeed still beating. His days might have gone on aimlessly had it not been for the unexpected return of an old friend from university, Hiraoka (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has been dismissed from his job following a series of problems with his superiors which has also landed him with a considerable debt to repay and no prospects of further employment. Adding to his sorrows, Hiraoka and his wife, Michiyo (Miwako Fujitani), have recently lost their infant child and have been told that due to Michiyo’s poor health they may not be able to have any more. Daisuke wants to help them, but he’s also facing a lot of pressure from his family to accept an arranged marriage which will further his father and brother’s prospects and is becoming conscious of the relative lack of freedom his life of dependent idleness entails.

Men of Daisuke’s era have perhaps had it hardest coming of age during a period of massive social change which is incomprehensible to the older generation. He’s a well educated man, an intellectual, who can speak several languages and is given to introspective contemplation, but he’s also inherited the worst of European classism as he’s come to believe that working for money is beneath his dignity as a gentleman. He’s completely unable to identify with his friend who needs to work to eat and enjoys none of the various safety nets which are provided by his own wealth and privilege. Nevertheless, he does want to try and help Hiraoka and is dismayed to discover just how little power he has do anything for him.

Hiraoka and Daisuke were part of a group of friends at university which also included another boy who, sadly, died of an illness and his sister – Michiyo, who eventually married Hiraoka. At the time, Daisuke himself had fallen in love with Michiyo but out of a misconceived idea of “chivalry” – another unnecessary adoption of European romanticism, he stepped aside in favour of his friend. This has proved to be a disaster all round and Michiyo and Hiraoka are trapped in an unhappy union which has made Michiyo physically weak and caused Hiraoka to spend the money he should be using to pay back his massive debts on drink and geisha so he can avoid going home. Daisuke’s adherence to a code of morality which is more affectation than anything else is shown up to be cowardice, another way of avoiding adulthood, as he uses his intellectual ideas to mask what is really a fear of rejection.

Daisuke later comes to believe what he did in not acknowledging his own feelings towards Michiyo was “a crime against nature”. He now finds himself at another crossroads as he faces the choice between conforming to the rigidity of his upperclass life in marrying the woman his father has chosen for him and continuing to be financially dependent, or embracing his individuality and striking out on his own to finally claim the woman he’s always loved (and, tragically, has always loved him). In choosing to make a life with Michiyo, Daisuke would be taking several transgressive actions – firstly acting against his own self image by entering the world of working men and secondly by stealing a married woman away from her husband which is no simple matter in the still relatively conservative Meiji era society.

Ultimately, the film is much more a story of Daisuke’s journey of self realisation than it is a melodrama with a love triangle at its centre though Sorekora certainly embraces these aspects too. Morita opts for a more classical tone here with a number of long, unbroken takes and static camera shots yet he also affects a strange, dreamlike tone in which the present and the past seem to co-exist, each drifting one into the other. He intercuts scenes which echo the film’s ending into the main body of the action as well as showing us the early days of Daisuke and Michiyo’s unresolved romantic connection which is poignantly brought out by an experimental technique in which the foreground appears almost like a freeze frame while the rain carries on falling behind them. At certain points there are also some surreal sequences in which Daisuke is travelling on a train but is surrounded by fellow passengers who suddenly each pull out a large sparkler or another where a gaggle of men all dressed just like him are crowded into the the other end of the train and looking at the moon through the open roof of the carriage.

A prestige picture, but one with a healthy dose of strangeness, Sorekara is an inexpressibly sad film full of the tragedy of wasted time and the regret that comes with not having acted in way which satisfies your authentic self. In order to live a life that’s true to himself Daisuke must finally learn to risk losing everything but the film’s ambiguous ending may ask whether the cost of following your heart may not be too heavy a one to pay.


Unsubtitled trailer:

 

The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1983)

TFG_DVD_jk_ol“Why do we have to make such sacrifices for our children?”. It sounds a little cold, doesn’t it, but none the less true. Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1983 social satire The Family Game (家族ゲーム, Kazoku Game) takes that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, and turns it inside out whilst vigorously shaking it to see what else falls from the pockets.

The “ordinary” middle class Numata family consists of the salaryman father Kosuke, the regular housewife mother Chikako and their two sons – older brother Shinichi and younger brother Shigeyuki. Right now the focus of attention is very much on Shigeyuki as he approaches the difficult period of sitting entrance exams for high school. To be frank, Shigeyuki’s prospects are dismal. He ranks near the bottom of the class and though certainly bright has little interest in studying. Therefore, the family have decided to bring in a home tutor to help boost his grades. They’ve already tried several to no avail but have high hopes for Mr. Yoshimoto, a local university student, but little do they know that he’s going to end up teaching each of them a little more than they cared to learn.

Morita breaks down the modern family into its component parts and finds only archetypes representing the kinds of roles which are rigidly enforced by Japan’s conformist society. Let’s start with the “father” who is supposedly the head of the household yet barely has anything at all to do with it. He believes his role is simply to go to work and shout commands which his “family” are supposed to follow unquestioningly. His realm is everything outside the house, everything inside is the responsibility of his wife and he won’t in any way get involved with that. When he has a problem with the kids (and this problem will only be that they aren’t performing to expectation), he will tell his wife and she is expected to take care of it on her own. Of course, his authority is hollow and dependent on his family falling in with his preconceived ideas of their “individual” roles.

The wife, then, is more or less a glorified housekeeper in charge of domestic arrangements and expected to remain within the home. Barked at by her husband and treated like a servant by her own children, her existence is often a fairly miserable one. She remarks that she wishes she’d had her children later – there were so many things so wanted to do that now are denied her because she’s forced to “play the role” that’s expected of her as a wife and mother.

Of the two kids, the older brother, Shinichi, starts the film as the one who plays his pre-ordained role to the level that’s expected of him. He’s a bright boy who studies hard and got into the top high school no problem. As the film goes on and everyone’s obsessed with Shigeyuki, Shinichi’s mask begins to drop as he encounters various typically teenage phenomenons which interfere with his role as over achieving big brother.

Shigeyuki, however, refuses to play the game at all. He just does not care. He loves to get under people’s skin and takes pleasure in annoying or outsmarting them such as when he cons his mother into letting him skip school (his pancreas hurts!) which she lets him do probably knowingly because she’s still playing her role as the worried mother. Finally he only begins to study when he realises it annoys a fellow pupil when his grades improve.

When tutor Yoshimoto enters the picture he tears a great big hole through the centre of this perfect family photo. He starts by behaving very strangely with Mr. Numata by grabbing his hand and calling him “father” whilst leaning in far too close for a casual acquaintance. Similarly when he first meets Shigeyuki he leans right in and then remarks that he has “a cute face”. He proceeds to invade Shigeyuki’s physical space by regularly touching him to a degree which is odd for a teacher/pupil relationship and is almost a prelude to molestation. When Shigeyuki tries to troll him by filling pages of his notebook with the same word over and over again, Yoshimoto reacts coolly before punching him in the face. From now on, when Shigeyuki isn’t pulling his weight, he’ll get a bloody nose.

Gradually Yoshimoto begins to take over the parental roles of the household firstly by instigating the masculine discipline through violence that Mr Numata is never there to deal out as well as offering the original role of teacher/mentor which might ordinarily be found in a grandfather or uncle. Later he usurps the big brother’s place by trying to talk frankly about sex and teaching Shigeyuki how to defend himself against playground bullies which also helps the boy cement a friendship with a sometime rival. Finally, he takes on the maternal mantle too when Mrs Numata asks him to go down to the school and talk to Shigeyuki’s teachers on her behalf. By the time that his original mission is completed he’s well and truly infiltrated the household allowing him to, literally, overturn its sense of stability.

Morita’s screenplay is witty affair full of one liners and humour born of unusual frankness. Family is a fake concept which forces each of its members into predefined roles and is largely divorced from genuine feeling. What matters is the appearance of normality and the acquisition of status – i.e getting into the better university, not so much as a path to success but as a way of avoiding the embarrassment of not getting there. An absurdist social satire, The Family Game is a biting critique of the social mores of the early 1980s which punches a gaping hole through the foundation of traditional Japanese society.


 

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song: