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The Forgotten: Post-Nuclear Family

Ishii's savage slapstick satire subjects a family to reversion to savagery, suburban style.
The Crazy Family

I first became aware of Sogo Ishii's The Crazy Family when it got a UK release around 1985. Most western critics found it wearisome and baffling, and I didn't go. Five years later, a Japanese friend showed it to me—he'd already won my confidence by introducing me to Miyazaki's films, still largely unknown in the West at that time. Neither Miyazaki's Totoro nor Ishii's Crazy Family had subtitles, so my friend served as amateur benshi translator, offering some English language help approximately once every ten minutes. Now I've finally seen both with subtitles, I can't say being unable to follow the dialogue greatly hurt either film, since what they really speak is the language of cinema.

But Ishii, inspired by the punk rock ethos, is a very different creature than Miyazaki: his jet-black satire perhaps depends on an awareness of Japanese culture, hence his success at home and puzzled reactions abroad, but since my friend was around to say things like "Buying first home is very big thing in Japanese society," I had a kind of leg up.

The Crazy Family

The titular family, outwardly sane at the film's start, move into this new home in the suburbs (situated at the end of a street like the one in the original The Ladykillers, so it can be dramatically framed, but identical to all the others so it can be subsumed into the cityscape via crane shot). Father, mother, son, daughter (played by Youki Kudoh in her debut: later she'd play a Japanese tourist in Jarmusch's Mystery Train). Each has a bit of an obsessive side, maybe, mirroring different aspects of Japanese culture (work, domesticity, study, health and beauty), but things only get fraught when granddad moves in. There's nowhere to put him, so dad starts digging a hole to create a basement. This becomes rather too important to him, until he starts experiencing exponential zoom trombone effects in the office. Then this happens:

It's all heading for meltdown, where the title's more literal translations, "The Back-Firing Family" or "The Fucked-Up Family" come true. The son retreats to his room and becomes a kind of sci-fi vampire, dark rings around his eyes, studying around the clock, stabbing his thigh with a craft knife to stay awake and study more. Dad discovers an infestation of termites, buys bug powder and tries to use it on his kin. It all seems kind of tasteless, then granddad puts on his WWII uniform, ties the teenage Kudoh up with her skipping ropes and feels her up. The intent isn't pornographic, although of course it intersects a brand of perversion more visible in Japanese porn than elsewhere... It's more gleefully sick than pseudo-erotic.

The Crazy Family

The ensuing pitched battle features all the family members arming themselves, in percussive montages, with the tools of their obsessions, so dad has his power tools and gold clubs, son has his sharp, sharp pencils, baseball bat, and a standard lamp fastened to his arm as exo-skeleton, and best of all, mom has a Ned Kelly cyber-samurai suit of armor made from pots and pans, a sieve on each breast like a domestic valkyrie.

The Crazy Family

The take-no-prisoners punk attitude, wielding satire like a cudgel, is yoked to a hyperkinetic visual style with echoes of Sam Raimi (who pilfered his moves from Eastern cinema anyhow). Ishii, who changed his pseudonym from Sogo to Gakuryu for some reason, is now an aging enfant terrible, tossing off the occasional samurai epic, superhero adventure or serial killer thriller, with new-found spiritual concerns blended in, but back in the 80s he combined the cartoonish vulgarity of Frank Tashlin with an aggressive camera style closer to Andrzej Zulawski. In other words, like nobody else, like nothing on earth.

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

To Chuck Stephens, whose posts appear to have been deleted (possibly for taking too intemperate a tone) — I did do some research, and fell prey to it: for my mistranslation of the movie’s title, you can thank Wikipedia. As for Raimi’s Eastern influence, it’s Hong Kong rather than Japanese — he’s acknowledged the influence of Tsui Hark productions such as A Chinese Ghost Story for his camera style in the Evil Dead films. Those movies also enjoyed considerable cross-pollination with Japanese cinema.
I self-deleted, thank you. You still haven’t figured what the film’s title refers to – hence my reference to lack of research. I’m also quite curious as to the ways A CHINESE GHOST STORY, which was released in Hong Kong in 1987, managed to influence either EVIL DEAD (1981) or EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).
You needn’t respond further though. It’s all clear now: you went to the wikipedia…and there you stopped.
Well, you’re certainly right about that example. I’m not making up the Raimi-Far-East influence though, it comes from a documentary called The Incredibly Strange Film Show which profiled Raimi in the late 80s. They also profiled Hark, and probably that’s where the confusion arose in my mind — nothing by Hark could have influenced the first Evil Dead. As for research, I usually get better results from watching the films themselves: here, the things you jump on came from a website and a TV documentary, whereas you don’t take issue with anything else. If you’d care to recommend a good source for information on Ishii, that’d be useful for all our readers.
Actually, I tell a lie, it was the IMDb, not Wikipedia.
David, please understand: I value specificity in writing about film. There are many, many writers who have been writing about Ishii for decades now, and you could turn to any of their works if you wanted to understand more about the films and their maker. I would recommend starting with just about anything Tony Rayns has written on Ishii since the 1980s. I am quite familiar with the Jonathan Ross program to which you refer. I would not commend him as a scholar of any medium. I know that you prefer to go with your impressions and simply proceed directly from watching to writing about a film. I’m only lobbying for a little more historical effort going into the mix.
http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/sogo_ishii.shtml http://www.midnighteye.com/features/concertfilms_ishii.shtml
Well thanks for the articles. I don’t think too much of Ross’s scholarly approach, but he did have direct access to Raimi, which I don’t. Thanks for the links — I welcome any positive contribution to the discussion. Reading those wouldn’t have helped me on the translation of the title, though, would they?
No David, for that you’d actually have to do some research of your own.
But as you’re in or near London, why don’t you access, say, the back library of SIGHT & SOUND issues, old MFB’s, BFI publications and catalogs from the London and Edinburgh Film Festivals? I know you’d have to go a wee bit further than your usual wikipedia to do so, but imagine the wonders that await you, out beyond the internet. Sorry I can’t do any more of your legwork for you.
I’m neither in nor near London. Your research is faulty. The point I’m groping towards is that I reproduced an error in good faith. Digging up more information to expose that error would have required me to know it was an error in the first place, or else to get very lucky. I could easily have emailed a Japanese friend, but I had no reason to suspect I had been misinformed. So while I’m delighted to have the mistake corrected, it doesn’t seem to me that the snide tone accompanying the information is really justified. By all means offer better information if you have it, but keep in mind that not everybody can know everything you know. You need to work on your theory of mind.
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Gotta side with Chuck here. If you’re going to write about film history you need to get your basic facts right, which would include doing at least a moderate amount of research. Wikipedia and a TV program don’t qualify in the “moderate” category.
Thanks Bobby. It appears we’ll just have to leave David where we found him: groping for a point.
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Not so much. I appreciate The Forgotten as a column and what it sets out to do. I just don’t like lazy writing, and MUBI is by far my favorite online destination so I have extremely high expectations for it. I’d like it to have the best writing around, if possible.
OK, next time I find some info on the IMDb I’ll be sure to spend £100 on a train ticket, travel 400 miles to London, and check through the BFI archives in case it’s wrong. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for fewer articles, though. Maybe one a year. Reading from beyond the IMDb does inform much of what I write. As for this article, if we’re talking about the film’s title, I reproduced an error and Chuck was good enough to correct me. This was a translation from the Japanese and nothing to do with film history. There IS no film history in this article. If you’re talking about the suggestion that Sam Raimi has been influenced by Eastern cinema, check out Shogun Samurai or a Touch of Zen and then look at Evil Dead. But I’m tired of this. It has nothing to do with appreciating films or sharing knowledge, it’s just petty, puerile points-scoring. I will have nothing to say to Chuck Stephens in future and will not read anything he writes. He’s an arse.
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Come now. You can be a better host than that. Don’t engage in name-calling and bitter arguing with your audience (while we’re on the subject of pettiness). If you get praise, take it in stride. If you get called out on mistakes or oversights, respond to them diplomatically and move on. You know how we are on MUBI. We can be pretty anal and combative. Gotta have thicker skin!
I believe I responded diplomatically, and got nothing but taunts. The guy isn’t interested in talking about films, just asserting his superiority. He tells us this Japanese phrase has a very specific cultural meaning. Umpteen exchanges later, we’re no closer to learning what it is. I thanked him for the correction, but he keeps needling. Fine. I haven’t read his latest comment and I’m not going to, and I’m not going to read anything said about him now. You and I got off to a shaky start here but it was worth persevering and reaching a better understanding because I think at heart you’re interested in the subject and having a conversation about it. I don’t get that from Chuck, so I have no interest in him. I don’t think “arse” is an insult in this case because he’s deliberately being one. I wish him well with it, elsewhere.
Though David’s off sulking somewhere, I’ll try to end this on a constructive note: “The original Japanese title Gyakufunsha Kazoku translates literally as ‘The Back-Jet Family’. The reference is to an instance (notorious in Japan) that occurred at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the early 80s. A pilot named Katagiri was about to land a JAL air-liner at the end of a short, internal flight. At the crucial moment he fired the plane’s back-jet, causing the aircraft to crash instantly and killing many of the passengers. The official enquiry into the incident determined that Katagiri-san had cracked under pressure of work. The film’s title thus refers to both the pressures of the ‘system’ and self-destruction.” ~ Tony Rayns, YOUNG JAPANESE CINEMA, ICA Document 1990 – from a traveling film series presented, among other places, at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Rayns goes on for two more additional paragraphs about the cast and their various intertextual relations. Both the National Library of Scotland and the Edinburgh City Council public library appear to have collections of back issues of SIGHT AND SOUND. No idea how extensive, but I got that far simply by Googling.

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