Black comedies about dysfunctional families are common enough in Japan, from Sogo Ishii’s anarchic “Gyakufunsha Kazoku (The Crazy Family)” (1984) to Takashi Miike’s batty “Katakurike no Kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris)” (2001), which also has the distinction of the being the first Japanese zombie musical. “Funuke Domo, Kanashimi no Ai o Misero (Funuke, Show Some Love you Losers!),” which has one of the best English titles I’ve run across in a while, is the latest in this loopy line. Screened in the Critics’ Week section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this first feature by Daihachi Yoshida has a clever script, talented cast, vivid characters and, as might be expected from a veteran CM director, visual goodies, including an inspired sequence in which real life bounces into manga.

What it does not have is a consistent tone, as it veers from sitcom yoks to kitchen-sink-drama shocks. This is calculation, not incompetence — Yoshida wants to make, not just a laugh fest, but an unblinking examination of how families can become festering swamps of crushed hopes, suppressed rage and sexual deviance. Was he inspired by similar examinations by Todd Solondz (“Happiness”), Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”)? No telling, though Yoshida’s script is based on a novel by Yukiko Motoya.

What is clear, though, is the scarcity of real laughs, with most coming from the brilliant Hiromi Nagasaku as a strenuously “normal” housewife. This may help “Funuke Domo” qualify as festival-worthy art, but it lessens its value as stress-relieving entertainment. Minus Nagasaku, it would be just mildly funny and vaguely creepy, like taking a bus trip with a gorgeous, ditzy neurotic and learning that she has not only a closer than close relationship with Dear Brother, but has carved his forehead into a checker board. You might feel like making an unscheduled stop, no?

Funuke Domo, Kanashimi no Ai o Misero
Director Daihachi Yoshida
Run Time 112 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (July 13, 2007)

Or you might make an exception for Eriko Sato, who played a superpowered robot in the SF-romp “Cutey Honey” and a child-abusing teacher in the horror “Kuchisaki Onna (A Slit-mouthed Woman).”

Babelicious in the former role, a good screamer in the latter, Sato has a more fleshed-out (forgive the pun) character in “Funuke Domo,”a failed actress who has a dark as well as a comic side. Sato’s performance is all of a piece, even when her character stinks up an audition and has a fit when she is dissed and booted. Sato is brilliantly awful, superbly enraged.

She is Sumika Wago, who returns to her home in rural Hokuriku for the funeral of her parents, killed in a freak road accident. There she meets her mousy little sister, Kyomi (Aimi Satsukawa), who works at an unnamed part-time job in town, her sullen big brother, Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase), who is a wood-cutter, and his new bride, Machiko (Nagasaku). A frantically cheery loner who has exiled herself from Tokyo to the boonies in pursuit of a normal family life, Machiko finds herself, instead, a bystander in a sibling war, with strange, dangerous undercurrents that surprise and appall her in various measures — though she never loses her chirpy manner and eagerness to smooth things over in the name of “family harmony.”

The battle lines, however, were drawn long before Matsuko arrived on the scene, as we soon learn. Four years ago, Sumika was quarreling with her hard-headed father over her dream to go to Tokyo and become an actress. Words turned to violence — and left Shinji with the aforementioned scarred forehead and the traumatized Kyomi, then 14, with the desire to draw the family drama in manga form. She submitted her finished work, depicting Sumika as a latter-day Lucrezia Borgia, to a horror comic and won a newcomer’s prize. The ensuing uproar, with the whole village devouring Kyomi’s roman a clef, led to Sumika’s departure (though the money she raised by turning tricks with a former classmate eased the way).

Now she is back, dead broke, to claim her share of the inheritance and is angered to learn from Shinji that the money is not forthcoming. Soon after, she is dumped by her manager while pumping coins into a pay phone for a call to Tokyo. Naturally, she takes out her disappointment on Kyomi, as fearful as ever of big sis’s bullying, but still drawing on the sly. Then Sumika reads in a magazine that a famous director, whom she has never heard of, is looking for a “new type of heroine” for his next film, which will be on the theme of “communication.” She decides to communicate with him by letter — and is overjoyed when she gets a reply, with the hint that she might be the one he is looking for. Will all finally be forgiven and Machiko’s impossible dream of a happy, loving family come true?

The short, unsurprising, answer is “no.” The root problems of the Wago clan run too deep and weird to admit an easy solution. To begin with, the three women are all infected with what might be called the artistic virus: Sumika is obsessed with acting, Kyomi with drawing and Machiko with making bizarre dolls out of yarn, buttons and other household scraps, like a hyper kindergartner on a rainy day. All three are dreamers, unsatisfied with the status quo — and all three are punished for it. Stolid Shinji, whose idea of recreation is a nightly bottle of beer, seems immune from the feminine madness swirling around him — but he’s not. He is, in fact, the most vulnerable of all.

A generation ago, Shohei Imamura or Akio Jissoji might have made a dark human drama from this story, with real knives and murder. Yoshida prefers to use toys and paper as his characters’ weapons of choice — and his film is neither comic fish nor dramatic fowl. But I’d watch it all again for Nagasaku’s hilariously twitchy reactions to humiliations and outrages, which elevate the local art of self abasement — and the universal art of the double take to a new level. She deserves a film or, better yet, TV show of her own: “Desperate Housewives — Japan Style.”

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