By the 1980s, many artists were exploring the paradoxes of Japanese prosperity. There were fewer people to complain about existential threats, and more to complain about existential crises. Chief among them was that nagging sense that social conformity was absurd, and maybe even dangerous. The breakout film in ridiculing middle-class Japanese life was the 1983 film The Family Game.
A Story of the Middle Class
The Family Game was both a huge critical and financial success, winning a range of prizes, including an award for best film of the decade. The movie is both brutal and lighthearted. It’s the story of a middle-class Tokyo family, the Numatas: mom and dad and two sons.
They are desperate to get their younger son, Shigeyuki, into an elite high school. Elite high schools are gateways to the best universities. So, test scores at age 12 can shape the rest of your life.
Shigeyuki isn’t stupid, he’s just disaffected, awkward, and a bit nerdy; a pretty normal adolescent. But he gets labeled a ‘problem child’, to which he sullenly responds, “Isn’t every 12-year-old a problem child?” That establishes him as probably the smartest person in his family.
The Key Character in ‘The Family Game’
Shigeyuki’s parents hire a series of tutors, but without result. The plot centers on a new tutor, Yoshimoto Katsu, who’s a 7th year student at a third-tier university. Shigeyuki’s parents comment, “7th year…You must really like university,” to which he answers, “I hardly ever go.” Mother answers, “Well, if you’re in your 7th year, that makes sense,” and that absurdity sets the tone for the film.
Katsu’s tutoring consists mostly of sitting Shigeyuki in front of test-prep materials, and punching him if he doesn’t study. Shigeyuki’s dad promises Katsu a huge bonus if Shigeyuki hits his target score, so Katsu has incentive to keep smacking Shigeyuki until he improves.
In the meantime, he teaches Shigeyuki how to handle bullies at school. Shigeyuki gets the desired test result. At his school, the placement adviser remarks, “You must have hired an excellent tutor.” The mother responds, “Yes, although strangely he wasn’t on the recommended list.” So, the plot highlights the absurdity of ordinary middle-class Japanese life.
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Depiction of Japanese Housing
The movie also lampoons Japan’s infamously underdeveloped housing stock. Japanese housing lagged its income boom by about a generation. That led to the EU’s infamous comment that the Japanese were “workaholics living in rabbit hutches.” The Family Game depicts middle-class Japanese housing in all its mundane lack of glory.
The Numatas’ housing block is ugly and shoddy, and their apartment is noisy and cramped. In one of the scenes, a new neighbor introduces herself to Shigeyuki’s mom, Chikako, and promptly begins oversharing. She’s worried that if her father-in-law dies, they won’t be able to get the body down in the building’s tiny elevator. The neighbor breaks down in tears, and Chikako lamely tries to console her.
As this is taking place, Shigeyuki comes home, roughed up by bullies again, and he just wants to get in the bath. So, he whines like a 12-year-old: “Mom, draw me a bath,” and strips down to his undershorts. But the bath is right by the front door of the apartment.
So, Shigeyuki is in his underwear howling and complaining next to the sobbing neighbor who won’t quite leave. And then the phone rings! The scene is a claustrophobic cacophony of domestic mayhem.
Mocking the Middle-class Japanese Life
Another film in this style is The Funeral, the feature-film debut of director Itami Jūzō. It opened in 1984, a year after The Family Game, and it was a great critical success, winning best picture and best director from the Japan academy.
The movie is about a couple that struggles to arrange a funeral for the wife’s father. It’s a fully modern couple; they both work as actors in commercials. They have no idea how to do a conventional Japanese funeral. In fact, they’re so lost over how to proceed that they get a video—funerals for dummies—to learn what to do. Once again, all middle-class conventions wind up looking ridiculous.
A reviewer for The Los Angeles Times wrote that the film shows “how the middle-class struggles to maintain traditions while devouring everything from the West, especially the United States”. That’s partly true, but it also misses a key point: middle-class families everywhere struggle to maintain tradition.
In The Funeral, the dead father-in-law is an ill-tempered, former brothel owner. So, how does the family talk about the real past while trying to keep up appearances? Should they just give up on decorum and get real? The question of how can one authentically mourn their troublesome relatives is a real challenge. However, it is also a luxury of a prosperous society. It’s a problem in a society where people commonly die from old age, and are not killed in their youth or their prime by war, poverty, or disease.
So, prosperity means one needs to be reminded about how to conduct a funeral—because people don’t have funerals all the time! Like The Family Game, The Funeral is about existential crises not existential threats.
Common Questions about the Absurdity of Middle-class Life in Japanese Cinema of the ’80s
The Family Game highlights middle-class Japanese life by telling the story of a family consisting of a mom, dad, and two sons. The parents are trying to send their 12-year-old younger son to an elite high school. Like any other middle-class family, they want their son to follow the absurd rules to reach prosperity.
In The Family Game, the plot centers on Shigeyuki’s new tutor, Yoshimoto Katsu. Katsu’s tutoring consists mostly of sitting Shigeyuki in front of test-prep materials, and punching him if he doesn’t study. Shigeyuki’s dad promises Katsu a huge bonus if Shigeyuki hits his target score, so Katsu has incentive to keep smacking Shigeyuki until he improves. In the end, Shigeyuki does get the desired test result.
The Funeral depicts the absurdity of middle-class Japanese life. The story is about a couple who don’t know how to perform a traditional funeral for their loved ones. The film wants to convey that the middle-class families try to preserve their traditions, even though they are ridiculous.