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Friday, Oct. 5, 2007
Rousing a rabble in Japan
"Family Game," Yoshimitsu Morita's 1983 black comedy about a sardonic, sadistic home tutor — played by Yusaku Matsuda — who ruthlessly exposes the dysfunctions of a "normal" middle-class family, made Morita, temporarily, the Takeshi Kitano of his era.
That is, a director with a fresh, innovative style and an irreverent attitude toward the shibboleths of both Japanese society and the Japanese film industry. A director, in other words, with the potential to shake things up locally, while building a major reputation internationally.
Instead, Morita became a mainstream chameleon, making sappy romcoms with fantasy touches ("Mirai no Omoide/Last Christmas,"), heavy-breathing soft porn posing as tragic drama ("Shitsurakuen") and turgid legal drama with reforming pretensions ("39 Keiho Daisanjukyujo"). In the process, he mostly abandoned his "Family Game" style and stance, whether from inclination or necessity — and his reputation abroad suffered accordingly.
Morita's new film, "Southbound," is his attempt to make a "Family Game" for the current decade. The smartly edited trailer makes it look as though he has succeeded brilliantly at taking up where he left off nearly a quarter of a century ago.
The film itself, however, is an illustration of why even adaptable directors find it hard to retrace their artistic steps. Overly talky, flaccidly paced, indifferently staged, "Southbound" is the cinematic equivalent of senior pro tennis — the codgers on the court may be having fun, but the primary pleasures for fans are nostalgic. And the top spins lack urgency and conviction.
Even the story, based on an eponymous novel by Hideo Okuda and scripted by Morita, has a retro feel to it. Ichiro Uehara (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former student radical now living in Asakusa, refuses to give up his antiestablishment ways. When a woman from City Hall comes calling to remind him about unpaid taxes ("It's your duty as a citizen," she says), he laughs in her face. Why should he pay good money to a government that, as the lost pension-records fiasco recently proved, tosses it away? "I'll quit being a citizen!" he concludes.
When son Jiro (Shuto Tanabe) tells his father he needs ¥35,000 for a school trip to Hakone, Ichiro seethes. How dare they charge the equivalent of a round-trip ticket to Guam! The school must be in cahoots with the travel agency. Soon after, Ichiro shows up at the school to protest — and has to be physically restrained by frantic teachers from barging in on the principal.
Then Jiro learns about his father's turbulent past with the help of a Web-savvy classmate — and joins a friend in beating up an older bully who had appropriated another boy's new basketball. The school principal and other official busybodies visit Ichiro to voice their concern about Jiro's violent ways — the bully's father complained, putting them all in a flutter — and Ichiro, by now predictably, explodes.
Sakura (Yuuki Amami), Jiro's supportive, even-tempered wife, proposes a radical solution to the frustrations of big city life: Move to Okinawa, where Ichiro has relatives — and they can live unmolested. Everyone agrees but Yoko (Keiko Kitagawa), Ichiro's grown-up daughter, who is embarrassed by and exasperated with her father and wants to be on her own in any case.
Okinawa proves paradisiacal — in the beginning. The Ueharas, including button-cute daughter Momoko (Rina Matsumoto), joyfully take up residence at an abandoned farmhouse, explore their idyllic surroundings and get to know the locals, most of whom are friendly. But the authorities, beginning with a bumbling, good-hearted cop (Kenichi Matsuyama), pay calls, as do slithery developers intent on taking over their house and land. It starts to look like Tokyo all over again.
The Swiss Family Robinson situation has it charms, but Ichiro's down-with-the-capitalists, up-with-the-proletariat rhetoric feels out of sync with the film's supposedly contemporary setting. Unreconstructed radicals may still be spouting such stuff, but they are mostly graybeards. Realistically, this should be set in the 1970s or early 1980s, when the revolutionary embers were still glowing, however feebly.
That said, Etsushi Toyokawa, as Ichiro, takes a twinkle-eyed glee in trouble-making and rabble-rousing that is funny, refreshing — and instructional. Knowing his battles are hopeless, he fights them anyway, for the sheer, obstinate hell of it. Former Takarazuka star Yuki Amami further enlivens the proceedings as Sakura, who is not a motherly martyr, but an unruffled, straightforward companion in arms who gets a not-so-secret kick out of Ichiro's theatrics.
Unfortunately, their battles are with cartoon villains and play out in predictably scripted ways. There's an air of unreality about the whole enterprise, right down to the final confrontation with the developers, which is all sound, fury and slapstick. Karl Marx, as least as far as Morita's career and this movie goes, was right: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.