The Family Game (1983)
Nicholas Driscoll
May 13, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

Most of the people I know watch movies primarily for entertainment, first and foremost. Obviously this is a common phenomenon, seeing as the highest-grossing films tend to be largely empty-headed action adventures, or formulaic romances, or comedies driven by scatological humor. I myself often tend to watch movies that entertain me—kinetic kung-fu extravaganzas, soaring animated stories, monster-packed science-fiction/fantasy romps, flashy superheroes performing feats of enormously expensive daring-do, and old-time schlock-fests with cheesy dialogue and bad special effects. Living in Japan helped me expand my cinematic diet because I wanted to watch just about anything I could, often based solely on whether English subtitles were indicated on the back of the box. It was there that I more fully appreciated that the sheer enjoyment of a film was hardly the only criteria for a film's value. Sometimes a movie that makes me uncomfortable can be a sign of a superior craft, especially if it is skillfully laying bare relevant issues of the world. Enter 1983's The Family Game, which has proven itself popular enough among the cognoscenti that it apparently makes regular appearances in American college classes about Japan. When I put the DVD in, I had no idea what to expect, and got a big dose of the unexpected and artistic indeed—an experience I treasure in foreign film.

Based on the Yohei Honma novel, The Family Game follows the unexceptional lives of the Numata family, especially the younger brother, Shigeyuki, a highly intelligent young slacker who is nearing his graduation from middle school and the monumental (in Japan) choice of which high school he can get into—as well as the intimidation of highly-competitive entrance exams. Pressure is high from his parents to get into a good high school like his older brother, and in the claustrophobic apartment that the Numatas live in, family tensions constantly build and fester like a pressure cooker. Other than applying said pressure, though, the Numata parents have little involvement in their sons' lives, even when it comes to discipline, and so to browbeat some good grades out of Shigeyuki, Mr. Numata enlists the aid of the ferocious tutor Yoshimoto who immediately sets to violating Shigeyuki's comfort zone and disciplines with brute force. But in this world of broken or nonexistent family ties and trenchant aimlessness, dreams are only mocking lights in the distance and succeeding often means advancing to another misery.

The Family Game is a dark social satire with wickedly barbed humor. In the somewhat wandering plot, there are no healthy relationships. Mr. Numata rails from above on the hierarchical ladder, calling down commands while refusing to get involved, while Mrs. Numata functions as a completely neutered servant-girl, serving foodstuffs and treated with disdain even by her own children. School is filled with jaded, cynical teachers who can barely control their quarreling classes, and friendships among students lead to bullying or misunderstanding rather than love. The story then is filled with absurd, humorous glimpses at bleak lives as characters struggle, and generally fail, to find any sort of meaning in their privacy-deprived existences where choices are made, not by oneself, but by whoever is pushing you the hardest. As a social critique of some of Japan's societal ills, The Family Game is nastily sharp and incisive, painting a funny but downright depressing world.

Acting is strong by nearly everyone involved. Shigeyuki, played by Ichirota Miyagawa, is very natural; the pimple-sprinkled actor seems to be living in the resigned but rebellious skin of the character he is playing. The late Yusaku Matsuda, who was made famous playing tough detectives or policemen on TV, adeptly stretches his acting muscles here as the almost fiendish tutor Yoshimoto, carrying himself with a confident power and wielding his formidable will like a weapon. Early on a very creepy sexual tension is built up between Yoshimoto and his tutor that is carried throughout the film, with heavy overtones of possible molestation—Shigeyuki's reaction, rejecting female love and disregarding social etiquette in regard to certain taboo topics, keeps the uncomfortable theme at the forefront. Minor characters, with the exception of the rather wooden love-interest of Shinichi, are carried off very well, and I especially enjoyed some of the teachers at the school. (What do you expect from a reviewer who recently taught English in Japan?)

There is no music throughout the film—when Mrs. Numata plays a record in her home and bobs her head to the tune, that song is also left off the soundtrack, as if even the peaceful pleasure of music is devoid of any fulfillment in this world. Replacing the music is a frequent use of overloud sound effects, especially a disquieting (in both senses of the word) use of high volume eating sounds. Almost every time someone eats or drinks, it becomes a noisy affair, the wet, squishy, or crunching sounds resonating over the soundscape of the film, filling the void of the empty conversation.

If I didn't make the point clear already, The Family Game is not a pleasant movie, but it is very well done. The direction is masterful, with eye-catching compositions, and close-ups that help convey the cramped quarters and lack of privacy that is often a given in Japanese city life. Directed by Yoshimitsu Morita (who recently remade Sanjuro), with assistant directorship duties taken up by Shusuke Kaneko, who would go on to make a name for himself in daikaiju history by breathing new life into the Gamera franchise, The Family Game, except for some highly confusing sequences, is very well done. I didn't enjoy this movie as much as other comedies such as, say, My Secret Cache (1997) or All About Our House (2001), but there is an art and intelligent deconstruction in The Family Game that those other films lack. Just don't go in looking for a joyful ride—in this game, darkness is in the rules.