The recent spate of Japanese family dramas by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hirokazu Koreeda, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yuya Ishii and other indie directors has produced much outstanding work, but the on-screen alienation can be depressing, to be honest. The housewives (almost never career women) in these films live especially joyless lives, expected as they are to sacrifice themselves for family units (hard to call them “members”) who barely acknowledge their existence.
So it was with the expectation of another downer that I watched Koki Yoshida’s “Kazoku X (Household X),” a first feature selected for the Forum section of this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Influenced by the observational, documentary methods of Nobuhiro Suwa (Yoshida was both Suwa’s student and assistant director), the film focuses on what must be the ultimate dysfunctional Japanese family. The full-time housewife mother (Kaho Minami), salaryman father (Tomorowo Taguchi) and adult temp-worker son (Tomohiro Kaku) behave more like stressed strangers in an overcrowded disaster shelter than family members, never exchanging so much as an “Ohayo¯” (“Good morning”).
But the film held my attention to the end, despite its by-now overfamiliar indie techniques, from the barely-there dialogue and extreme closeups with a jittery handheld camera to the absence of background music, back story or any of the other usual devices for building empathy and sustaining interest.
The drama comes instead from Minami’s superbly calibrated performance as the housewife (we do not learn her name until the film’s closing scenes), who is quietly, clearly on the verge. Her obsessive-compulsive behavior (washing each dish until it squeaks, arranging the table mats in perfectly squared rows) signals not funny perfectionism but serious illness.
Her mousy husband, who barely speaks to his colleagues, let alone family, and her surly son, who devotes himself with surprising enthusiasm to his manual-labor jobs, react to her odd behavior with everything from avoidance (husband) to disgust (son) — but never understanding.
Her breakdown begins with what might normally be an act of spirited rebellion: buying prepared bento¯ (box meals) for the two ingrates at home instead of slaving in the kitchen for them. But for this fragile personality, such a radical deviation from her ideal (and highly artificial) self-image is the pinprick to the balloon. Once her will to sustain the illusion of a “good housewife and mother” deflates, her entire existence becomes senseless. All that’s needed to complete her collapse is a final, supernovalike explosion.
Yoshida, who also scripted the film, scrupulously excises conventional melodrama and sentiment, so much so that his characters, particularly Taguchi’s blank-faced salaryman, seem as capable of strong emotion, positive or negative, as robots. (The shot of a family photo, taken in earlier, happier days, is less bitterly ironic than incomprehensible. This, I was thinking, doesn’t compute.)
But Yoshida also takes us deep inside his heroine’s troubled psyche, as his camera tracks her every move. He does this more by oblique hints than direct statements, as when he follows her on her return from grocery shopping. We never see her face, but we observe, in her defensively hunched back and air of grim fixation, a woman trying desperately to avoid the probing and piercing of human contact. Meanwhile, the voices of her neighbors on the street sound disembodied and somehow threatening, whatever the surface meaning of their words.
In the climax, Yoshida shows us, without overdramatizing or overstating, that family bonds can be stronger than they seem in the more fractious moments of family life.
This lesson, which many of us learned (or relearned) one anxious day six months ago, make “Kazoku X” seem more timely than Yoshida perhaps intended. The disaster the film so starkly describes, though, goes beyond any one event or trend. Words such as “ohayo¯” may not have prevented it — but they’re a start.