Film / Reviews

'Survival Family': Soft-pedaling through dystopia

by Mark Schilling

To Hollywood, “dystopian future” usually means invading aliens, exotic technology and gigantic explosions. Shinobu Yaguchi’s “Survival Family” posits an alternative, more mundane cause of civilizational collapse: Japan’s electric grid suddenly freezes up, like a laptop that’s been doused with hot coffee. Televisions go blank, smartphones go silent and the internet goes missing. Chaos ensues.

Impossible to imagine, isn’t it? Or not so impossible if you were anywhere near Tohoku on March 11, 2011. In Tokyo, we had a brief glimpse of this apocalypse as trains stopped running, gas station lines lengthened and convenience store shelves emptied. Things soon returned to normal, more or less, but doubts were implanted in my mind about the stability of the social order — doubts that Yaguchi brings to funny, scary, plausible life, working from his own original script.

A veteran maker of comedies, including his 2001 box office breakthrough “Waterboys,” Yaguchi gets the expected laughs from the plight of the film’s title family, the Suzukis. Dad (Fumiyo Kohinata) is a gung-ho salaryman who, sent home from the office after a heroic (in his own mind) effort to do his corporate duty, diligently and ridiculously works by candlelight. Meanwhile, plucky Mom (Eri Fukatsu), a full-time housewife, tries to keep up the pretense of normality, such as waiting patiently in the long line at the supermarket checkout as overwhelmed cashiers frantically do sums on abacuses seemingly filched from a nearby museum.

Survival Family
Rating
Run Time 117 mins
Language Japanese
Opens FEB. 11

The situation soon become more serious, however, as it dawns on the Suzukis and their neighbors that the power isn’t coming back on any time soon and supplies are running out. At first, they awkwardly unite to meet this crisis, but soon one family after another makes its silent, shamefaced escape. As Tokyo descends into anarchy the Suzukis — Dad, Mom, their daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), and son, Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) — join the exodus, using their commuter bikes to pedal toward Kagoshima, where Mom’s elderly father (Akira Emoto) is a farmer.

Similar to “Robinson Crusoe,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and other classics of survival fiction, “Survival Family” illustrates the spiritual and moral benefits of fending off starvation. Kenji and Yui begin the film as typical modern urban teens — Yui glued to her smartphone, Kenji to his headphones — but as the days pass and their choices narrow (cat food for dinner or nothing?) they become more resourceful and, not coincidentally, more likeable. And all four Suzukis, who once barely interacted as a family, become heartwarmingly closer.

This sort of feel-good storytelling has often been Yaguchi’s key to box office success, but “Survival Family” is more realistic than much of his past output, at times starkly so, though his sense of humor, which shades to black, never abandons him.

The film’s family is well cast, but Kohinata, a veteran equally adept at comedy and drama, is the stand-out. As Dad, his transformations from insufferable egomaniac to pathetic loser and finally decent human being are both smooth and hilarious.

More than its laughs, though, “Survival Family” is valuable for its object lessons on how to make it alive through the coming debacle. And since this is Japan, these lessons revolve around finding wild edible plants and starting cooking fires, not slaughtering and pillaging a la “Mad Max.”

Is the film overly optimistic? Perhaps, but thinking back to the thousands of Tokyo commuters walking stolidly and peacefully home on the night of the 2011 earthquake, I don’t think so. Japan may have its faults, but violent chaos in the wake of disaster isn’t usually one of them.

That said, I’m glad my wife and I have decent road bikes and proper riding gear. Kagoshima here we come.

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