Shattering the Rules: Deconstructing the The Family Game (Kazoku Geemu)
by Vago Damitio
The Family Game (Kazoku Geemu), a film by Yoshimitsu Morita, is, on the surface, the story of a contemporary Japanese family who hires a tutor to help the youngest son raise his grades so that he can get into a better high school. Beneath the surface of the film, however, there is considerably more happening. This is not just the story of Shigeyuki, but also the story of his family, his tutor, and more importantly, it is the story of the society that he lives in and the rigid expectations that are placed upon the roles that each person inhabits. The Family Game examines the roles played by each member in a contemporary Japanese family and then proceeds to deconstruct each of these roles down to their cores; using this framework, Yoshimitsu Morita deconstructs Japanese society ,the roles individuals are expected to play, and whether such a hierarchical system is working within the Japanese family or nation.
To understand each of the roles that individuals in The Family Game inhabit, one must look beyond the structure of the Japanese family to the structure of Japanese society. Embedded within Japanese culture is the concept of wareware or we-ness that permeates all levels of society (Yano class notes 09/02/08). Japan is a country that has a very distinct interpretation of who and what it is. These theories of being Japanese or nihonjinron, are the result of Japan’s history, geography, and the unique cultural evolution which arose from these circumstances. Japanese culture is arranged in a vertical structure with a strong emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of each individual at each point on a metaphorical ladder of society. The Japanese refer to this as tate-shakai. At the same time that the individual is defined through tate-shikai, they are also expected to engage in shudan-shugi, or groupism. Shudan-shugi is not only expected among those sharing a particular ladder rung in society, but also for all of those who are in the society, regardless of the social or class position. This holds true in the relationships that are macro such as the individual to the government and in those that are micro such as parent to child relations or teacher to student relations. There is a rigid hierarchy in tate-shakai that is expected to be met in order to affirm the greater discoursive construct of wareware within Japanese society. (Yano classnotes 09/02/08.)
The fundamental unit in Japanese society is the family unit. The family unit is, to some extent a model of the nation in a smaller form. This concept is referred to as kazuka kokka (Yano classnotes 09/04/08). At its root this system is more concerned with positions and obligations rather than emotional bonds and as such it is easy to recognize the critique of the larger Japanese society that exists within the framework of Morita’s film. The Family Game looks at the roles and obligations of each member of the family and raises questions about the validity of those roles. In doing so, the film questions the basic tenets of Japanese society through couching of the specific roles into the format of a game in which each member of the family has rules to which their behavior is supposed to adhere.
The mother in the film and within Japanese society is expected to be the source of comfort and dependency. She acts as a shield from the outside world and makes sure that her family has everything they want, even if she may be aware that it is not what they need. When Shigeyuki pretends to be sick, his mother rolls out his futon and allows him to skip class, even though she knows that he is probably avoiding a test. Her role is to comfort not to confront. Even when Shigeyuki comes home early and interrupts her conversation with a neighbor, she drops what she is doing and focuses all of her energy on meeting his demands. In one scene, she laments having children because of all the things that she wanted to do with her life before she became a mother. The implication is that because of the roles she had to fill as a mother, these other options were no longer available to her.
The father on the other hand is distant. While his presence is perhaps felt more strongly felt than that of a tanshin funin, or stranger father, he is still an outsider in the lives of his children. (Yano class notes 09/04/08.) He is a workman that drinks too much and is unable to have a strong impact on his family in any way other than through being the provider. Rather than having the time to force Shigeyuki to study, stop malingering, or even defend himself from bullies, the father is relegated to the role of hiring a tutor and using his savings to bribe the tutor into raising Shigeyuki’s exam scores. Within his own home, the father is actually an outsider, thus fulfilling the role of the tanshin funin. When he wants to have a private moment or conversation with his wife or with the tutor, he invites them to sit in his car with him. One could easily reason that his home is actually within the vehicle.
Within the Japanese family there are expectations on the children as well. The older brother, Shinichi, is expected to act as a role model to Shigeyuki. From the father’s point of view, it is Shinichi that has performed his role well as an older brother by achieving high enough grades to attend a good high school. In the early parts of the film, the father uses Shinichi as an example to his brother and holds him up as a superior model that should be emulated. This is at the stage before the tutor has started to make an impact. Prior to this impact Shigeyuki is a coddled child that is indulged in his every whim by his mother. He is bullied and beat up on at school with no apparent effort to defend himself. He allows his grades to slide despite possessing an intellect that allows him to create complex roller coasters in his spare time.
The role of the tutor is a break from these traditional roles. Unlike the teacher at the school, the tutor does not limit himself to the roles that his society sets for him. On page 37 of Preschool in Three Cultures, Tanaka-Sensei says that the teacher should maintain a little more distance from students than a parent or a relative. By maintaining this distance the teacher facilitates the child considering them as someone who teaches them the lessons instead of someone to turn to with their problems. It would seem that the Japanese largely consider school and the socializing process to be a time when students learn how to solve problems themselves or with their peers. A parent relationship on the other hand would seem to be something that the child is able to fall back onto or depend upon to help them with the problems that are beyond their ability to solve. Thus the home is a place that the child is able to feel a sense of security and protection while this may be absent from the school. The tutor in The Family Game blurs these distinctions. Within the home he uses violence to ‘knock some sense’ into Shigeyuki, thus violating the safe confines of the home. In an academic sense, rather than being a distant and unattached presence, the tutor shows concern for not only Shigeyuki’s grades but also for his emotional well being. Thus, he ends up creating a new role that is lacking from the lives of the family. In the process, he creates a sense of uncertainty about the roles that the family have been fulfilling up to this point. The father, the mother, the sons, and even the teacher at the high school are uncomfortable as the tutor forces them to look at their roles and ask themselves, “What am I supposed to be?”
The mother is uncomfortable with the tutor’s use of violence within the sanctuary of the home, however because of the effectiveness in improving Shigeyuki’s grades, she is left to wonder at the effectiveness of her own methods. The father attempts to maintain the illusion that he is the lord and master of this family, but in the final scene, he is revealed to be the hot air filled simulacra of an imaginary role that he has always been. His physical absence or presence make no difference in the lives of his family. Shinichi is, in some ways, the most interesting member of the family since it is he that seems to be questioning the roles they exist in without the aid of the tutor. At home he is observing without comment and outside of the home, he is exploring the fulfillment of his own role in society as a creature with emotions, expectations, and a mind that doesn’t seem to fit into the mold that has been prepared for it. His interactions with the tutor seem to be almost that of an equal. This is confirmed in the last supper scene when the father suggests that the tutor should next work with Shinichi. The tutor responds that it would not be an appropriate situation.
The relationship between the tutor and Shigeyuki is the most complex of the film. The tutor takes on the role of father by teaching Shigeyuki to defend himself, he takes on the role of teacher through making the boy learn, he takes on the role of mother through visiting the school, and he takes on the role of friend and sibling through the sharing of typically inhibited sexuality and desire.
The Family Game provides a thoughtful and critical commentary on Japanese Society by deconstructing the roles and expectations that exist within the family by highlighting what could be some of the major shortcomings within Japanese Society. The Family Game forces viewers to confront the concepts of rigid hierarchy and the needs that such a system leave unfulfilled. Morita uses the last scene in which the tutor upsets the meal, beats up the family members, and finally spills all the contents of the meal upon the floor to show that the vertical society is not working and that the roles (family members), the cultural mores (the food and drink), and even the platform upon which the society rests (the table) need to be upset and completely destroyed. To some extent, it can be argued that Morita is the real life version of the Tutor and that it is the Japanese people who are playing The Family Game.