"Yoshimitsu Morita, whose films depicted the absurdity and vulnerability of everyday life in conformist Japan, has died," reports Yuri Kagayama for the AP. "He was 61." His breakthrough came with The Family Game (1983), winner of five Kinema Junpo Awards — Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Yusaku Matsuda) and Supporting Actor (Jûzô Itami) — in which Matsuda plays "an offbeat tutor who forms a heartwarming relationship with a young man in a stereotypical middle-class family."
"Though even its most perceptive commentators reduce Kazoku geimu (Family Game) to a critique of 'affluent, middle-class nuclear family life in the city and nose-to-the-grindstone education systems' [Keiko McDonald in 1989], Morita's most widely known film is before all else hilarious," wrote Bob Davis in Senses of Cinema in 2006. "Its laughs derive from inappropriate and idiosyncratic behavior, unseemly frankness, slapstick antics, gross-out tactics, repetitions, exaggerations, explosive contrasts, and unnatural pacing." In Davis's "brazen 'ranking' of Morita's films, Family Game, Deaths in Tokimeki, Sorekara [And Then], Keiho, The Black House (Kuroi ie) and Mohouhan are reckoned exceptional; Kitchen and Last Christmas embarrassments; the rest fall in the wide range in-between."
"There is nary a review of a Morita movie that doesn't allude to and lament the director's satirical roots in the 1980s," wrote Bryan Hartzheim last year, noting that Morita had become "a filmmaker alternating his increasingly goofy ensemble comedies with earnest period pieces." Reviewing Abacus and Sword (Bushi no kakeibo), he added that "Morita might have traded his domestic satire for period drama, but his social commentary on family dynamics in a capitalistic world remain as pointed as ever."
Kagayama notes that Morita's filmography also includes Tsubaki Sanjuro, "a 2007 remake of the 1962 classic by Akira Kurosawa, as well as works based on novels such as Soseki Natsume's poetic Sorekara [And Then] and Junichi Watanabe's Shitsurakuen [Paradise Lost]. Bokutachi Kyuko A Ressha de Iko [Take the 'A' Train], a comedy about train lovers starring Kenichi Matsuyama of Tran Anh Hung's Norwegian Wood, will be released posthumously next year."
Update, 12/23: After The Family Game, "Morita had problems following through with the tag of new cinematic genius," writes Chris MaGee at Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow. "Many would criticize Morita's decision to puruse a career as a journeyman director, shooting throwaway films with pop idols. In 1997, though, Morita enjoyed a huge hit in japan, especially with female audiences, with his erotic drama Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise). Starring Koji Yakusho as a married man who has an affair with a married woman (Hitomi Kuroki), Lost Paradise would break attendance records, not only because of its melodramatic and tragic ending, but also for the amount of steamy sex scenes between its two stars."