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'Family': A Grinning, Sometimes Smirking Look at East Meets West

March 03, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition

Japan-bashing may have been in vogue in Detroit and Washington during the '80s, but Japan- mania was more the attitude for the international film community that decade.

Japanese movie-makers were on a roll, the cinematic equivalent of the revving Toyota and Honda companies. Akira Kurosawa was, as usual, at the forefront, but upstart directors such as Juzo Itami also struck with pictures such as "Tampopo" and "A Taxing Woman."

Like Itami, Yoshimitsu Morita made an impact by exposing the radical shift in Japanese culture--from a more traditional stance to a devoted love of everything American. Morita's "The Family Game," screening Friday night as the latest installment in UC Irvine's "Tragedy and Comedy" series, is a grinning, sometimes smirking, look at Westernization as it plays out in a seemingly conventional Japanese family.

The 1984 movie opens with a scene one critic described as "some dreadful, bourgeois parody of the Last Supper."

Sitting at a long, narrow table are the members of Shigeyuki's family. He's the hero-narrator of Morita's comedy and he tells us right off that "everybody in my family is too much."

We can see that for ourselves. They furiously eat their food, jamming elbows into one another, reaching for bowls of rice, egg yolks and raw fish. As they slurp it all down, there's Shigeyuki (the deadpanning Ichirota Miyagawa), appearing bemused.

He's really at the center of Morita's movie, which follows his travails as a misunderstood teen-ager trying to cope with his cultures' expectations and all the mundane hassles that tend to follow high school students.

That may sound boringly typical, but Morita's screenplay (which was based on a novel by Yohei Honma) invigorates the subject matter by bringing in an arrogant, bed-hopping tutor (the glaring Yusaku Matsuda) to help him with his grades.

There's comic friction between these two. The tutor is not a gentle sort; to encourage excellence from Shigeyuki, he says, "Study hard or I'll hit you. I don't mind blood, I watch the tube all day." In a more tender scene, he bends over Shigeyuki and coos, "You're cute. All those pimples--the symbol of youth."

Beyond the interest we have in this odd relationship, Morita sways us with the cleverly composed images of Westernization. Students rush home to change out of traditional clothes and into American T-shirts and jeans. Shots of Japan's ugly industrialization, which, Morita implies, is a response to American business, is a little unsettling as we see the old being replaced by the modern.

How Shigeyuki's family fits into all this transition is key to understanding Morita's movie.

The director seems to be wondering if any Japanese family can withstand the shock of the new, when long-held beliefs give way to flashy, with-it-now attitudes.

What: Yoshimitsu Morita's "The Family Game."

When: Friday, March 4, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: The UC Irvine Student Center's Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road and take it into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 to $4.

Where to call: (714) 856-6379.

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