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Movie Review : 'The Crazy Family'--a Wild Japanese Import

May 30, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

If you associate Japanese films with the splendor and fury of "Ran" and "Seven Samurai"--or the green-tea-and-rice delicacy of "Tokyo Story" or "The Makioka Sisters"--then "The Crazy Family" (at the Nuart) may come as a shock.

It's a frontal assault on family life, a comedy with its fangs out. It's black, acidulous and defiantly tasteless. At its far reaches, it plays like "All in the Family" strained through "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," or a Brian De Palma version of "Life With Father."

Sogo Ishii's movie chronicles the degeneration of the amiable but warped Kobayashi family: Mom Saeko (Mitsuko Baisho), Dad Katsukini (Katsuya Kobayashi), kids Masaki (Yoshiki Arizono) and Erika (Yuki Kudo). The Kobayashis--a name suggestively shared by the movie's lead actor and co-scenarist--move into the tract house of their dreams after fleeing a cramped apartment that was driving them crazy. (We eventually see this insanity, supposedly congenital, as national in scope.)

Soon they're joined by unwelcome guests: lecherous, freeloading Granddad Hisakuni (Hitoshi Ueki) and an army of termites. The house itself soon totters as the wildly obsessed Katsukini rips apart the living room and hits a geyser in a mad attempt to kill the "white ants." And the whole family plunges into bloody internecine warfare.

It's a comically pathological look at suburban middle-class family life, corrosively exaggerated. Ishii's style is big, bright, brash and bravura--a mixture of De Palma, Spielberg and Romero, a Westernized hybrid of horror, rock videos and teen-age gangster movies. (Ishii's a specialist in the last two.) The main strategy is slapstick mayhem. When Ishii stages a family argument, he doesn't hurl crockery--he has the son tie the family dog to a baseball bat, the father chase his daughter with an electric drill and the mother make a samurai armor of cooking pots and stab Granddad with a barbecue fork. (Later, the grandfather, in full military regalia, tries to restage World War II.) This satire isn't just barbed, it's brutal. The movie makes you wince as you laugh-- and some will be so offended that they won't even stay to wince.

Yet--wild as "The Crazy Family" gets, shrill as it often seems--it's never pointlessly vicious. The movie has a moral center: The savagery is directed toward the pressures or pathologies of modern urban life--family neuroses, cheap-shot materialism, hypocrisies, corrupt traditions, the legacy of the imperial era. (Nisei academic obsessions are eviscerated by one shot of the crazed Masaki in his ice-blue high-tech study/den, stabbing himself with a carpenter's awl to stay awake.) The "craziness" of the family is the craziness of modern Japanese life; Ishii throws everything into a cinematic pressure cooker and brings it to an explosive boil.

Perhaps the violence isn't as offensive as it might be, because it's both cartoonish and metaphoric. The battles are like Three Stooges squabbles gotten temporarily out of hand. And when the lunatic son kicks his equally batty Granddad downstairs, it's somehow less a human donnybrook than a symbolic battle of generations--nihilistic, vacuous youth against the remnants of militarism. There's even a cracked, but palpable, sense that Ishii loves his demented clan; he goes to incredible lengths to rescue and redeem them.

"The Crazy Family" (Times-rated Mature for violence and sexual scenes) is a satire that chews great bloody chunks out of its subject. It's strong stuff, and there are bad sections, but it has a scorching, youthful vigor. Like its pop score (by the Japanese band 1984), it hooks you on sheer, sassy energy.

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