Coffins, Elevators, and Crowded Dinner Tables: Malfunctioning Structures in Morita’s The Family Game

A postmodern comedy, The Family Game draws most of its laughs from absurdity. The film is a view of a world of malfunctioning systems and misappropriated remedies, and Morita derives his laughs from the shear preposterousness of the dysfunction. The rise of absurdity results from the disjunction of expected behaviors, motivated by common sense human desires, from the characters’ actual behaviors, imposed via restrictions inherent to social structures, both physical and intangible. The Numata family crams shoulder to shoulder at the kitchen table, and they consume meals with myopic obsession, engaging their nourishment with a face-to-face intimacy that is unreflected in their familial interactions. In a sense that is both literal and allegorical, the Numatas are constricted into unnatural spaces as a peripheral result of a project whose end purpose has been forgotten. Thus, Morita’s spatial composition is not only an analog for the conglomerate social and structural absurdities of industrial Japan, it is itself representative of ironic dysfunction.

Form Forgets Function

Morita consistently reuses the same settings, often with the same camera and actor placement. That he reuses the same spaces is not an arbitrary formal decision; his subjects are also limited to traversing this repetitious landscape. The landscape is in fact, almost entirely manmade, marked by smokestacked edifices and the bustling accoutrement of productive industry. The industrial plants which neighbor the Numata’s are invasive menaces and possibly poison the family at the conclusion of the film, yet these evils are consequences of an endeavor with benevolent ambitions; industrial development is pursued to enhance quality of life, so it is ironic that its charitable objectives would be forgotten in the implementation of its methods . The loudness of the process occludes the value of the intended result, to ironic effect. Morita conveys the enclosing nature of industry with repeated outdoor settings which are bounded by hard lines that are cold, concrete and man-made, and internal settings that are awkwardly cramped, compressed by encroaching industry. The forced contraction is witnessed in the Numata’s dining setup, studying and bathing arrangements, and perhaps most hilariously of all, in the automobile conference room. Freedom of motion is restricted by these undiscriminating forms. (Shigeyuki’s roller coaster represents the antithesis of this conflict. A roller coaster’s movement and form are fully harmonious.) The players in the academic system in the Family Game demonstrate a similar amnesia. The end goals of education—intellectual betterment, career success, and life-skill learning, are overwhelmed by their superficial constituent parts—test performance and high school admittance. Constituent elements are thus compartmentalized, pursued as ends themselves with neglect of their relationship to the whole. Likewise, the eating habits of the Numatas evidence a similar disregard; the direct focus on the consumption act itself is a perversion of the social purpose of familial dining. A practice designed to engender support, mutual enjoyment, and social interaction is deconstructed to its basest form and instead breeds isolation. (In contrast to the Numatas, Yoshimoto is seen eating an apple slice from his lover and then immediately engaging her. The encounter is interpersonal and sensual, evidencing a more traditionally Japanese, pre-industrial sense of enjoyment and the tutor’s superior understanding of certain human fundamentals) Shared living quarters, a practice that should intrinsically provide for the synergy of familial cooperation is an empty convention. In fact, as the family becomes more compressed, their emotional separation seems to grow. The cooperative purpose of family is dismembered; the Numata’s apartment is no longer a space for living and raising a family, it is a space for eating (in relative isolation), sleeping (intrinsically solitary), bathing(also cramped and solitary) In the film, the performance of these restricted, deconstructed behaviors brings comedy. The juxtaposition of the travesties against reasonable behavior is easily implied, and the resulting absurdity comprises the force of Morita’s comic project. However, for the members of the family, the malfunctions threaten to be not comic but tragic. The parents are pathetically out of touch with their family, and both sons are at risk of severe academic and social failure. Morita’s subjects have misread the blueprints for their family structure; like any condemned building, eventually demolition will be necessary.


“When he passes away, how will we get his body out of the building? The elevator is too small for a coffin.” Morita frames many of the apartment interior shots through small openings in the apartment. By shooting through the small passageways, he emphasizes the tightness of the space. Within the apartment, characters are seen facing the same direction in scenes of alienation and face to face in scenes of direct address or conflict. When the characters are shoulder to shoulder, the visual space is characteristically flat. The elimination of depth further confines the characters, highlights their arrangement along a left-right axis , and in so doing, reiterates the humor of their circumstance. Crucial to observe is that the characters have chosen to arrange themselves this way. Though they are spatially limited by their environment, they chose to live in that environment. In the Family Game, the subjects are not the recipients of spatial oppression; more humorously, they are creators of their own absurd predicament. In several shots, we see the characters actually, move into smaller spaces, compressing themselves. Viewed from above, the schoolyard brawl appears like a constellation of white-clad boys that condense into a single, compact cluster, and when Tsuchiya visits, tutor, father, mother and son all squeeze themselves into the awkwardly tiny apartment entry. In this scene, humorous effect is rendered by highlighting the family’s idiosyncratic volition; their self-induced spatial compression enhances the hilarity of the resulting social discomfort.

Ironic Remedies and The Entropic Raisonneur Arrives

Characters in The Family Game frequently respond to a crisis in counterintuitive, indirect fashion. Within the school, ordinary disputes inexplicably turn violent. Shigeyuki responds to an over-intimacy problem by engaging in physical antagonism with his otherwise companion. The father is concerned for his children’s success, but is unwilling to directly intervene and instead hires a tutor to intercede on his behalf. Ironically, he then claims to spend more time at work in order to pay for a tutor to improve his home life. Upon, arrival the tutor begins a regimen of instruction that seems similarly disjointed. Academic shortcomings are addressed with physical violence. Yoshimoto, a tutor who is largely unqualified academically, initiates a mission to spread disruption through the isolated constructs of Numata family life. It may seem at first that Yoshimoto is an incompetent force of destruction or a sadistic prankster, but as the action progresses, the unique fruits of his endeavor become evident. Humorously excessive violence is employed to address non-violent situations, upsetting Shigeyuki’s nihilistic sense of isolation. He prods sexual tensions (The cute pimple-face introduction, inappropriately close speaking distances, laying behind Shigeyuki), heightening Shigeyuki’s perspectives and thereby forcing those slumbering emotions into motion.

The Last Supper

In the climactic dinner scene, the characters exemplify a strong conformity to the flat-space compression format. Their movements are entirely two dimensional and artificially bounded by the ends of the table. The shot scale is careful to frame the family with empty space on all sides, drawing attention to the joke of self-enforced constriction. All the elements of family life are not functioning properly at this table. Parental guidance and discipline are grossly misapplied as the father berates his son across the table. Social niceties are ignored at the expense of a guest. Space is being misused; the family is unnecessarily cramped. Manners are malfunctioning, absurdly illustrated as the wife graciously nods for the tutor to stop pouring as he overfills her glass with the wrong liquid. At this table, the tutor decides to seek a lethal blow to the family’s dysfunctional stasis. Satirizing their consumption myopia to an unbelievable maximum, he engages in escalating self-absorbed gluttony, a behavior that is allowed to build beyond reasonable levels. Yoshimoto unleashes the culmination of his entropic vision, the full and now literal deconstruction of the malfunctioning family complex. Physically disrupting the table and assaulting the family, he draws them out of their two dimensional box. In an unmistakable metaphor, he upends the table sending the parents and food to the floor. This is the literal action of structural upheaval, a crowd-pleasing climax that sees the ridiculous customs of a misled family triumphantly vanquished. When the camera returns to the family, cleaning up the mess, they are on the floor, positioned in a circle rather than horizontally. Yoshimoto’s chaos has necessitated their unity in a genuine familial effort; the abject destruction of their ritual will force them to reconsider as they rebuild. Quietly, they work together for the first time.

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