Film / Reviews

'Stormy Family': Dysfunctional family, dysfunctional film

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Films about funerals are about as common here as films about weddings — meaning common indeed — and both are subsets of the family drama, a key genre in Japanese cinema since forever.

Why center a film on a ceremony that in Hollywood is usually relegated to one brief scene?

As seen in Masahide Ichii’s “Stormy Family,” an apt title for a drama about a dysfunctional family, Japanese funerals not only draw together family members who rarely meet, but also last long enough — if the wake and cremation are included, as they generally are — for ancient resentments and antagonisms to surface. This is often a recipe for comedy, and Ichii, who also wrote the original script, cooks up a clever opening that promises just that.

Stormy Family (Taifu Kazoku)
Rating
Run Time 108 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens SEPT. 6

But instead of following the lead of “The Funeral,” the 1984 Juzo Itami classic that satirically skewers the Japanese way of death, Ichii opts for overheated drama that strains for contemporary relevance and universal pathos but falls back on standard genre tropes.

The opening, though, is original. An elderly couple, Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) and Ittetsu Suzuki (Tatsuya Fuji), rob a bank of ¥20 million and make their getaway in a hearse that resembles a mobile Shinto shrine. Incredibly, both they and the hearse seem to vanish off the surface of the earth.

Flash forward 10 years. Their son, the volatile Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), drives his dutiful wife (Machiko Ono) and wised-up tween daughter (Mahiru Coda) to the now-abandoned family home in the countryside. There he plans to meet younger sister Rena (the single-named Megumi) and younger brothers Kyosuke (Hirofumi Arai) and Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) for a mock funeral with empty coffins.

The real purpose of the gathering, though, is to divvy up the parents’ estate, since they are now legally deceased. Mourning is not on the agenda: Mom and Dad’s crime made their children town pariahs and ruined the funeral business the couple had built for decades. Their assets, including the tumbledown house, have dwindled to little indeed. But at a family conference, Kotetsu grandly claims the lion’s share, saying that he and his family need it more than his childless siblings.

Unsurprisingly, the others balk. But more revelations are yet to come, from the comically trendy to the grimly tragic and the straight-up bizarre, as a typhoon closes in.

At the center of the story is Kotetsu, who still loudly blames his parents for thwarting his acting dreams of long ago and, for all his blustering, is the family head in name only.

Kusanagi, a former member of the mega-group SMAP, has a long list of acting credits, though he is better at comically undermining his “cool” SMAP image (see the 2013 “Maruyama, The Middle Schooler” for a funny and quirky example) than embracing his inner Sean Penn (see his cringe-worthy blind masseur in the 2008 remake of Hiroshi Shimizu’s “My Darling of the Mountains”).

In “Stormy Family” he kicks up a one-man tempest, complete with heaving sobs and flying objects, but ends up looking more blankly exhausted than emotionally devastated.

Better is veteran Tatsuya Fuji in the role of Dad, caring for his dementia-afflicted wife in total isolation — and plotting a way out. He conveys the old man’s love, pain and desperation with a quiet power. In a windy movie, he is the one real force of (human) nature.