On Friday, 21st April 2017, the Far East Film Festival (FEFF) opened the doors of Italy’s Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine for the 19th time; the selected opening film was Shinobu Yaguchi’s The Survival Family that promptly announced one of the “red threads” of this year’s edition: we were up for 10 days of excellent Japanese and Eastern Asian films.
When one thinks of Japanese cinema, one’s brain first delivers a flash of imagery from a particularly melodramatic melodrama; a crazy stunt from a teen romcom; a vicious, nail-and-soul-biting horror story; or a prideful historic battle. So when one tells you that what you are about to see is a Japanese post-apocalyptic family drama, certain stereotypes meld together to form an image that is worrisome to say the least, especially to those of us that have not been properly ordained in Japanese cinema and/or culture. But whatever it was that my brain was expecting to receive with the first Udine shot of the Far East cinema, it certainly wasn’t a humorous but poignant family drama that serves also as a well-executed satire of the today’s society (both on Japanese and on global levels).
We have the father (Fumiyo Kohinata), who is a stereotypical absentee Japanese salaryman patriarch; the stay-at-home mother (Eri Fukatsu) who at first gives off a half-a-brain impression; and two teen kids – the perpetually headphone-plugged son (Yuki Izumisawa) and the spoilt, cell-phone-for-an-arm princess daughter (Wakana Aoi). This perfectly ordinary, perfectly disassociated Suzuki family is up for a rude awakening when they – along with the rest of the world, as it would appear – one day wake up to find that any and all electric objects have mysteriously stopped working.
After a few days where they stubbornly try to live on as if nothing had happened – the father, for example, actually goes to work daily, even though there is nothing that can be done in his office when the lights, phones and computers are out – the family is forced to accept that their comfort zone in one of the Tokyo districts has now (in addition to the complete power outage) become a zone without food or water, with an alarmingly fast-climbing desperation- and deprivation-induced crime rate. There is no other choice – the Suzuki family must leave Tokyo to survive.
They leave with as much luggage and rations as they manage to fit on four bikes, first with a fleeting hope of flying to their maternal grandfather who lives in a fishing village on the other side of the main island, and after that last hope withers, with the firm intent of making it onto the other side on their bikes, no less. What follows is a Japanese family odyssey, where humour balances danger and personal growth matches ditzy, enervating moments as this road film/family drama/slapstick comedy gets the show properly on the road.
The cast does their job perfectly – their performances and chemistry are completely believable. The writing is nothing short of brilliant, and the build-up is as well balanced as it can possibly get, as is the natural flow of character growth of the family who seem to be fighting change every step of the way. There is also more than one parallel that can be drawn between this family quest and the adventures of Odysseus – including the temptation to quit their tiresome journey by settling in a place that would offer them a comfortable existence; but instead of the temptress Calypso, we get our hearts broken with the story of a lonely grandfather who is – just like their maternal grandfather – waiting for his own family to return from the other side of the ocean; a feat that seems to be impossible in this post-electric society.
If you read the synopsis, the story seems to be a bit screwy, and it is hard to know what to expect. It does turn out to be screwy, but truly in the best possible way. The entire audience here in Udine were thoroughly entertained, I for one was left with a warm and fuzzy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I am also absolutely positive that I was not the only one who got a lot of pondering and self-reflection done after the screening was over. It is true that, towards the end, there is an arc that surpasses any believable scenario, but that is merely that extra note of Japanese storytelling that does not take, but gives the story a little bit of extra flavour.
Since this is one of the newest Japanese film productions, it is hard to say when The Survival Family will be available in the UK, Slovenia or other EU countries, but if you get a chance to watch it, do it, with your whole family if you have a chance – you will most definitely not regret it.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © IFilm, Toho Company and Fuji Television Network