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Family drama is reimagined for today’s Japan

by Philip Brasor

“Kazoku Game (The Family Game),” directed by the late Yoshimitsu Morita and released in 1983, remains a movie milestone. A cynical black comedy, it presented to the world a distillation of the less edifying social outcomes of Japan’s postwar economic miracle. The Numata family are invaded by a private tutor named Yoshimoto (Yusaku Matsuda), who reveals the mendacity undergirding their idealized middle-class existence. He has been hired to get the younger of the two Numata boys, Shigeyuki, into a good high school, which he does through intimidation and coercion, and in the process shows how conventional scholastic endeavor merely prepares students for the conformity of the salaryman life embodied by their father (Juzo Itami), who is too involved with work to understand his sons much less his distracted, oblivious stay-at-home wife (Saori Yuki).

Yoshimoto succeeds and the family celebrate with an elaborate meal at their iconic designer dining table, refusing to acknowledge the spiritual rot eating away at the household while the tutor literally makes a mess of the ritual. This is where the movie veered most dramatically from its source material, a 1981 novel by Yohei Honma that was also adapted numerous times for TV, first as a two-hour TV Asahi drama in late 1982, and second as a six-part TBS series in late summer 1983. In the latter the Numatas live in a public-housing block and the father is a self-employed mechanic who has worked his way up in the world. He wants his sons to have what he couldn’t have, which is why he hires Yoshimoto, played by rocker Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi. It’s less caustic than Morita’s movie but delivers the same message.

Apparently that message is still relevant, because Fuji TV is currently broadcasting a new version of “Family Game” (Wed., 10 p.m.) set in the present and starring Sho Sakurai (from boy band Arashi) as Yoshimoto. What made Morita’s vision affecting was his recognition that the hypocrisy on display was inherent in the culture at large and thus implacable. The new version takes that hypocrisy for granted, but uses it to titillate. It exaggerates the elements that made the movie shocking. The characters aren’t just deluded, they’re twisted. Matsuda’s tutor was an antisocial loser with a streak of cruelty. Sakurai’s is a full-blown sociopath. Matsuda struck Shigeyuki just to get a rise out of him. Sakurai not only strikes Shigeyuki (Seishu Uragami), he practically destroys the Numata home on a weekly basis, cackling all the while like the Wicked Witch of the West. Matsuda’s power over the Numata household came from the force of his personality. Sakurai’s power is of the purely calculating kind, as is the writing in general.

Here, both Japan’s miracle and the resulting bubble era that Morita heralded are distant memories. The 1983 Numatas may have thought they’d arrived, but they still lived in cramped quarters. Two of the better jokes in the film was the adolescent brothers’ inability to walk through their shared room without crawling all over each other, and their father’s use of the family car for intimate conversations because there was no privacy in their condo. In the new “Family Game” the Numatas live in a palatial suburban house paid for by the parents of the mother (Honami Suzuki), complete with sauna and private bedrooms for everyone, an aspect that’s important to the story since everyone has a secret that Yoshimoto exploits for his own ends.

As to what those ends are, it still isn’t clear almost halfway through the series. We already know that Yoshimoto is not who he initially claimed to be. It’s suggested that he’s responsible for the death of at least one former student. Like Matsuda’s tutor, Sakurai’s uses gamesmanship instead of pedagogy to get results, but his methodology is more sadistic. After tricking the lazy and self-important father (Itsuji Itao) into signing a contract with a ¥10 million penalty if the tutor is dismissed, Yoshimoto uses threats to compel Shigeyuki, who has stopped going to school because of bullying, to return to class.

Naturally, he is subjected to even more abuse, which Yoshimoto encourages on the sly, supposedly to toughen Shigeyuki up. “Real life is even meaner than you think,” he tells the boy, though not as mean as Yoshimoto, who at one point assembles his tormentors and tells them that if Shigeyuki commits suicide they will all be complicit because Yoshimoto has their bullying on video. But it’s just part of a strategy to fill Shigeyuki with a false sense of well-being before Yoshimoto pulls the rug out from under him again. In time, he does the same to every other member of the family.

Sakurai’s Yoshimoto is like a villain in a superhero comic, but he’s never funny, even when he has a steel door installed at the entrance of Shigeyuki’s room to prevent him from leaving. He has the magical ability to be everywhere at once so that he can clandestinely photograph individuals during vulnerable or embarrassing moments. And he seems to have unlimited resources to carry out these elaborate, ridiculous schemes.

Matsuda’s Yoshimoto was a dramatic construct, too, but the objective was satire. Morita inflated Honma’s basic premise and eliminated anything that might be mistaken for hope, a theme that is treated irreverently in the Fuji series, at least in the beginning. The motto of the electronics company where the father works is “Hope for the future,” a good joke considering that his job is laying off redundant workers, one of whom is played by Ichirota Miyagawa, Shigeyuki in the 1983 film. However, there are indications that Yoshimoto is being cruel to be kind, that he wants to save the Numatas from their worst natures. If that’s true and the series’ intentions turn out to be didactic it would subvert the entire meaning of Morita’s movie, which was to show Japanese society how much it had compromised in its rush to material comfort. The new “Family Game” shows Japanese society how to live with that compromise.

  • doramafan

    In episode 4, Sho Sakurai as the tutor criticized the Japanese education system particularly it’s history lesson. I don’t see this new 10 episode drama adaptation could be as revolutionary as you deemed the original was but I applaud the effort. Has there ever been a mainstream drama criticizing the nation’s history so straight forwardly?