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The Crazy Family (1984)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) is one of the best Japanese films you’ve never seen.

As Steven Puchalski wrote – in part – of the film in 1994, ten years after the film’s release, “not many people caught this pitch-black comedy when it was released in the United States — no surprise since its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders. Though still unavailable on video, I’d like to give it my vote as one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan. Directed by Sogo Ishii [who subsequently changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii] this was his first feature film to be picked up by an American distributor [New Yorker Films, who subsequently went out of business, leaving the film in limbo].

Mixing sledgehammer social satire with rapid-fire cinematic dementia, this is an unforgettable excursion into the darkest recesses of his culture’s middle-class values, as well as a precursor to such ’90s cult hits as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. [Utterly] unrelenting, The Crazy Family focuses on the outwardly-sane Kobayashi family. They’re an Asian bourgeois [family unit], complete with a successful dad, a loving wife, and two well-adjusted children. To top it off, they’ve just moved into their suburban dream home. Sounds perfect? Not for long. Because soon their unwanted grandfather moves in, white ants are discovered feasting on the woodwork, tempers begin to percolate, and the family’s oft-mentioned “sickness” takes over, which sends our happy Nuclear Unit spinning headfirst into a series of comic obsessions.

Father begins digging up the floorboards and spreading toxic bug poison; the straight-laced mother does an impromptu striptease for her ever-more-paranoid hubbie; and the daughter practices for her unlikely pop star career. Meanwhile, the son crams for his Tokyo University entrance exams by turning his room into a high-tech nightmare, complete with electrodes, glowing pyramids, and a handy knife which he stabs himself with in order to stay awake.

The household hostilities escalate and soon the place becomes a full-scale battlefield — the family armed with mothballed World War II weapons, a chainsaw, even a baseball bat with the family dog strapped to it. [Grandfather] goes so far off the deep end that he takes his pre-pubescent granddaughter hostage. In between the various fires and explosions, Ishii makes scathingly hilarious points about life in modern-day Japan, where socially-programmed perfection and technological advances have taken their toll on a new generation. Imagine a movie that begins like [an episode of the 1950s Cold War television series] Father Knows Best, turns into a mass-hysteria mix of The Shining meets The Simpsons, edited like a Road Runner cartoon [. . .] and you have The Crazy Family.”

I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater when it first came out, and it absolutely amazed me; so much so that I went right back in and saw it again immediately, being sure that I’d probably never be able to see it again. As it turns out, I was — sadly — absolutely right. The clip above gives you some idea of the quirky power of the film; someone should sort out the rights to this lost jewel, and release it as soon as possible. It’s brilliant, brutal filmmaking, and deserves the widest possible audience. In addition, it has none of its’ power in the last twenty-five years; if anything it seems more modern than much of contemporary cinema.

Click here, or on the image above to see a clip from the film; this is a lost masterpiece.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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