Yoshimitsu Morita

b. 25 January, 1950, Chigasaki, Kanagawa, Japan

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In his review of Keiho (39 keihou dai sanjyukyu jyo), Yoshimitsu Morita’s 1999 detective-comedy-psycho-thriller-courtroom-drama, Aaron Gerow recalled the old distinction between auteurs, defined broadly as directors whose films project a personal stamp, and craftsmen, whose films may exhibit great technical skill but lack that stamp. Morita, he suggested, is one of the latter.

Director of some of the best films of the last 20 years, such as Family Game (1983) and Haru (1996), he has also produced some of the more forgettable – Ai to heisei no irootoko [24 Hour Playboy] (1989) and Last Christmas (1992) easily come to mind. Always professing to be an entertainment filmmaker, he jumps from genre to genre, trend to trend, trying to be at the forefront of what is popular. Morita’s multiple transformations have in part been a result of his experimental spirit. Each film usually features some new test of film form, revealing a skilled director insistent about not falling into a rut. That’s what makes Morita interesting – but not always satisfying. (1)

Morita’s filmography-to-date is sizeable (21 features in the last 24 years) and, to be sure, uneven. Still, one may detect in two handfuls of his films a unique tone, a tone generated not by genre conventions or content but by the details of performance, sound design, composition and visual syntax, a tone that dovetails with some of the films’ thematics.

Though his films are widely distributed in Japan, since few of them have had international release there is little scholarship on Morita. What follows, then, is an initial attempt to root out some of the tonal and technical qualities of Morita’s films that suggest to me his unique genius. Five illustrated excurses. Or notes, fragments, towards an introduction.

Notes on comedy and space in Family Game

When his 14 year-old number two son, Shigeyuki, a self-styled troublemaker, brings home grades that won’t get him into a prestigious high school, Mr Numata hires a tutor. By turns intimidating and indifferent, the tutor whips the boy into academic, physical, and psychological shape.

Though even its most perceptive commentators reduce Kazoku geimu (Family Game) (1983) to a critique of “affluent, middle-class nuclear family life in the city and nose-to-the-grindstone education systems”, (2) Morita’s most widely known film is before all else hilarious. Its laughs derive from inappropriate and idiosyncratic behaviour, unseemly frankness, slapstick antics, gross-out tactics, repetitions, exaggerations, explosive contrasts, and unnatural pacing.

The screenplay’s dialogue is a festival of indelicacies. When Mrs Numata (Saori Yuki) informs the tutor (Yusaku Matsuda) that she knows her son is not dumb because, as a little boy, he memorised an entire book about roller-coasters, the tutor tactlessly responds with a matter-of-fact “Perhaps then he can work in an amusement park.” Later, the tutor inquires as to whether the “gift” of porn mags Shigeyuki’s (Ichirota Miyagawa) arch-nemesis-slash-best-friend, Tsuchiya, (Minoru Nishikawa) has left the boy “make him hard too”. When Shigeyuki replies with a coarse negative, the tutor abruptly insists his 14 year-old charge “speak appropriately”!

Conduct, too, is often outrageously indecorous. A junior high school teacher crumples exams and throws them out the third floor window, forcing failing students to run downstairs to fetch them. (3) And, when, in response to the tutor’s request that Shigeyuki list all the words in a reading passage he doesn’t know, the kid writes “twilight” hundreds of times in his notebook, the tutor whispers a warning not to mess around, sits back in his chair, silent for ten full seconds, then, suddenly, reaches out and smacks the boy in the face. A nosebleed.

desk as Weapon in Family Game

An early scene sets the stage for the tone of much of what’s to come. During an exam, Shigeyuki snaps the lead off his pencil. He looks up, announces, “Teacher, I need a new pencil.” One row over, two desks up, Tsuchiya turns back to his classmate, quietly advises, “Well, get one. What bullshit?!” Shigeyuki immediately stands, grips the sides of his desk, and drives it across the aisle, crashing into Tsuchiya, all the while screaming the equivalent of “Asshole” at the kid. Pandemonium ensues. Desks topple. Students press in on their wrestling classmates. Some join in, brandishing tennis rackets and metal lunch boxes. A petite teacher tries to break up the fight by swatting the two boys, and even other students, with her lightweight notebook.

Hyperbolic sound design (the lead’s snapping and the subsequent metallic screech of chairs as Shigeyuki and Tsuchiya face off are mixed unnaturally high in the soundtrack), (4) juxtaposition of extremes (exam and brawl), venue-inappropriate language (the profanities), and ludicrous weaponry (tennis racket, lunch box, notebook) contribute to the scene’s affective impact. The use of the desk as battering ram is a particularly inventive detail. And that Shigeyuki’s war cry crescendos as he steers his makeshift vehicle into his victim is just one of many precisely-timed comic elements here.

breaching personal space in Family Game

Some of Family Game‘s more subtle humour stems from violations of spatial norms. While interviewing for the job, the tutor incongruously pats Mr Numata’s (Juzo Itami) hand, begging the older man not to “scare him”. He gives Shigeyuki an intimidating peck on the cheek during their first tutorial. Later, he snatches the boy’s blanket, spoons the underwear-clad teen, rests his hand gently on the boy’s waist then upper thigh. All breach personal space.

Physical space, too, is at a premium in Family Game. The Numatas live in a cramped three bedroom plus kitchen-and-dining room plus one bathroom apartment in a landfill high-rise. Shinichi, the number one son, can access his cubicle only by walking through Shigeyuki’s. The family members take their meals sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on one side of a long table. For private conversations, Mother and Father or Father and Tutor retire, wrapped in winter coats, to the less-than-spacious front seat of the family car, their breath fogging the windows in the cold night air.

cluster brawl in Family Game

Morita’s compositions are also often cramped. When Tsuchiya appears unexpectedly at the Numatas’ front door, Morita manages to crowd five full heads, each with its idiosyncratic performance – Shigeyuki suspicious, the tutor predatory, Father delighted, Mother touched, and the back of Tsuchiya’s head a touch nervous – in front of his wide-angle lens.

Some eccentric compositions bunch humans up into fractions of the frame. Twenty-two boys in bright white gym clothes cluster brawl on the schoolyard Astroturf in 1/16th of an otherwise empty extreme high angle frame. Shinichi (Junichi Tsujita) sets up his telescope on an expansive, otherwise empty balcony within inches of the spot where the tutor demonstrates some wrestling moves on Shigeyuki. In Shigeyuki’s workspace the tutor (left, nearer the door) and the boy (right) sit side-by-side, the tutor occasionally edging into his charge’s space, pinning him against the wall.

an invasion of space in Family Game

Morita underlines some of Family Game‘s particularly visual comedy with flat space images. Flat space emphasises the horizontal and vertical lines of the frame, organising the objects inside the frame (furniture, architecture, bodies) so that their edges and axes parallel the frame lines and positioning the camera so its lens is perpendicular to a wall or other plane. Shots of the feeding family, for example, are flat. And though, of course, the elbow-bumping that results from the cramped all-in-a-row seating arrangement is intrinsically funny, the orientation of the table, the x-axis movement of the food-server, and the horizontal line up of diners contribute to the image’s precise, mechanical, frontal, flat humour. (5)

Flat space is classically associated with comedy, from the Keystone Cops to Takeshi Kitano. After the tutor wrestles Shigeyuki to the ground outside a bookstore, Morita cuts to a flat space shot of the dining room. The tutor marches quickly into frame left, across the width of the frame, and into the boy’s room, right. Shigeyuki, head down, beaten, follows a few paces back. Goose and gosling. The shot is repeated 30 minutes later, but then with the added comic bonus of Mother and Father sitting at the table, panning their heads back and forth in unison, trying to follow the x-axis-emphasising action behind them.

And many of the most hilarious tutoring shots – for example, the slapping duel towards the film’s end – are flat, the foreground plane (the desk) and the middleground plane (the two actors, frontal, side-by-side) x-and-y-axis oriented, and the background plane, a wall, perpendicular to the camera.

a hallmark moment in Family Game

But syrupy shots of Shigeyuki and Tsuchiya walking the industrial riverfront (6) display flat space too. These images – two boys, hands in pockets, making up in the dusky light – have an advertising slickness (orange-filtered, long lens), an ironic quality (the scene is intercut with Shinichi’s telling the tutor about Shigeyuki’s soiling his pants in class), (7) and a genuine emotional impact. They foreshadow the complex aesthetics, at once overwrought and subtly affecting, of Morita’s later work.

While, over the course of his career, Morita’s compositional choices have evolved towards the even more (and more consistently) artificial, controlled, aggressive, and irregular, Family Game‘s occasionally cramped compositions and flat space images suggest that Morita is from the start a director for whom the organisation of the image in the frame and the image’s relation to tone are of vital concern.

Space as unifying stylistic element in Deaths in Tomikeki

The second sequence of Tokimeki ni shisu (Deaths in Tokimeki) (1984) is a surgically precise, wordless narrative composed entirely of flattened images.

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Notes on movement and performance in Sorekara

Late Meiji Era. 30 year-old Daisuke, having selflessly forfeited the woman he loves when a classmate, Hiraoka, expressed interest in her, now devotes his attention to literature. But when Hiraoka shows up again, jobless, with his wife, Michiyo, Daisuke’s passions for the woman resurface. …

a faux-freeze in Sorekara

Sorekara (And Then…) (1985) includes several exceedingly long takes. (8) Michiyo (Miwako Fujitani) visits Daisuke’s (Yusaku Matsuda) place to ask for a financial favour in a 270 second shot which ends, after over two minutes in a seated medium profile two-shot, with Michiyo’s standing, then moving slowly foreground (camera tracking back with her) into a light which artificially over-exposes her face. An hour later in the film, Michiyo serves Daisuke a soft drink, and asks why he doesn’t marry, in a continuous 320 second take in which Daisuke never budges from his spot on the floor and the camera, aside from a pan to pick-up Michiyo in the middle of the shot, pushes only imperceptibly in. Finally, in a 465 second tight profile two-shot, Daisuke and Michiyo, seated either side of a vase of lilies, profess, obliquely, their love, the shot all but static. (9)

Super-poignant faux-freeze frames (10) epitomise the aesthetic Sorekara‘s near static long takes point to. In the film’s first flashback, Daisuke shelters Michiyo under his umbrella on a rain-drenched overpass. As he sniffs one of the lilies she holds, Morita dissolves to a close-up of the pair. They are perfectly still, their immobility emphasised, by contrast, by the rain that pours down (slightly slow-motion) around them. The second flashback intercuts Daisuke, Hiraoka (Kaoru Kobayashi), Michiyo, and Michiyo’s brother, Suganuma (Morio Kazama), strolling through Ueno Park with shots of Daisuke and Hiraoka shopping for jewelry – Daisuke scrutinises an (engagement?) ring, and Hiraoka a pocket watch. Four of the last shots in the park are utterly motionless, like snapshots, the only indication of movement a reflection of light on a garment or the slight displacement of hair. The players are frozen in pregnant poses. Dramatic stasis. (11)

Seigo 'surveys his kingdom' in Sorekara

Performance in Sorekara, and in most of Morita’s films, seems to be a series of carefully-defined, almost mask-like expressions and poses, each one a little too deeply felt, each smile, every concerned look, a bit too laboured – in a word, artificial. It would perhaps be reckless to call Sorekara a comedy, but Morita’s direction of his actors underlines the wry, ironic qualities of the film’s source novel and introduces some idiosyncratic oddities. (12)

Though never lapsing into the melodramatic, the performances the director elicits are always subtly “pushed”. Daisuke slumps over like a beaten dog, shoulders drooping, chin to chest, lips pouty, when his sister-in-law broaches the topic of marriage. Michiyo’s “circle of attention” (13) is unusually tightly circumscribed; she often appears abstracted, as if thinking to herself, inhabiting a world inside her head. And Seigo (Katsuo Nakamura), Daisuke’s brother, head up, chest out, constantly surveys his environment, regal even when munching a banana or picking his teeth with a giant toothpick.

three distinct 'actions' in Sorekara

Morita seems particularly concerned to set up peculiar contrasts of expression in his scenes. When Michiyo explains that her husband’s scarf has been made from their dead baby’s unused wardrobe, Morita’s three-shot exudes a tension derived not only from the compositional triangle of three distinct image sizes – Daisuke foreground left, Hiraoka middleground right, and Michiyo background middle – but also from the juxtaposition of his performers’ three distinct “actions”. (14) Michiyo, eyes down, stereotypically deferential, earnest, slow, tenderly exhibits the cloth. Hiraoka, stiff but active, wriggling out of his macabre scarf, barks at his wife. Daisuke sits through the family squabble with a characteristic dopey smile plastered on his face, (15) spouts non-sequiturs, pretends everything is fine. (16)

Sorekara even mocks its characters and their pushed performances. Though both men of letters, Daisuke and his journalist drinking buddy exaggeratedly move their lips, struggling to mouth the words, as they silently read. (17) And in a café, during an extended single-shot conversation in which the journalist asks Daisuke for a loan, another diner in the foreground mimics the journalist’s every move – nervously twirling chopsticks, hurriedly shovelling noodles, anxiously leaning in towards his potential benefactor – in a significantly more pronounced, and absurd, manner than even his model does. (18)

The film ends with Daisuke, expelled from the family home, his first love dying, his existential options – a life of leisure on society’s terms or a disinherited existence with his true love – moot. He walks toward camera, his eyes shadowed under the brim of his white hat, his purpose, a mystery.

Notes on identity and narrative construction in (haru)

While “haru” and “hoshi” (screen names of ambiguous gender) chat online about failed relationships both real and phantom, a department store clerk pines over the boyfriend she lost to a car crash and an injured football player dates a chirpy tease. …

almost a third of (haru) looks like this

Black screen, onto which email and a movie-talk message board’s chat room chatter are posted, accounts for almost a third of (haru)‘srunning time. Morita intercuts these electronic messages with short, oblique, single-character-focused scenes: she (Eri Fukatsu) practices calligraphy, black screen with text, he (Masaaki Uchino) takes the train home, black screen with text. But because posters hide behind screen names like “typhoon”, “bingo”, and “rose”, making it impossible to confirm to what extent their posts represent some extra-internet “truth”, and because the filmmakers order image and text in a way that sometimes hints at and sometimes frustrates specific identification of the posters with characters on screen, (haru)‘s audience spends much of its time shuffling and reshuffling pictorial and written clues in some grand maddening Kuleshovian game.

Indeed, 22 minutes into the film “hoshi” admits that he, though having been posing as male, sympathising with “haru”’s love-woes, is “in fact” female. Only after another hour’s worth of elliptical scenes does she reveal her real name.

She punches a bag at a corporate gym. He rearranges model players on giant American football board game. She sets buns in a pastry shop display case. He plays a “shopping game” with his new girlfriend. She attends a memorial for her dead ex. He jogs along the riverfront in the morning fog. She entertains a business proposition, a platonic marriage, from a young professional. They go fishing together. Slowly, from these fragments of everyday life, and from the emails that sometimes comment on them and sometimes contradict them, the audience pieces together a romance. Narrative by accretion.

alone in a crowd (haru)

A modern romance, to be sure … with machines as intermediaries. (19) Its world’s inhabitants spend most of their time alone – home alone, at work alone, alone even in cafés and trains – and take their cues re interpersonal relationships from the media. “hoshi”, early on, still pretending to be one of the guys, writes: “I don’t have a girlfriend, so, like you, what I know about romance I get from the movies.” The movie “hoshi” particularly admires is Rear Window, but not for the Kelly–Stewart chemistry, rather because he (she) “likes seeing people’s lives from a distance.”

When they decide to finally “meet” in person, 87 minutes into the film, she stands in a field and waves a handkerchief while he zips by on a super-express train. He shoots the get-together on video 8, she on mini-dv. The tender moment Morita’s audience has been waiting for lasts 1.5 seconds. Love at high speed, obstructed by two video cameras, the window of the moving train, and hundreds of yards of muddy farmland. “This will be my video treasure”, “haru” writes, post meeting, without a hint of irony.

Afterward, they engage in the ultimate intimacy, an exchange of real names:

Mitsue Fujima
9/5/1972
blood type: O

Noburu Hayami
1/15/1969
blood type: B

lives lived behind glass (haru)

Morita’s images and their syntactic relations divide the would-be lovers until film’s last frames. Morita keeps the audience at a distance from his characters. Wide shots and extreme wide shots, each one a post-1980-Godardian mini-masterpiece, mean Mitsue or Noburu is often situated as a relatively insignificant subject in the image’s vast impersonal world. And physical barriers, especially glass and the reflections in it, often obstruct our view of him or her.

Morita constructs (haru)‘s scenes out of an unusually high percentage of separation shots. (20) Theses visual separations, like the frequent cuts to black screen and the hard sound cuts, (21) atomise moments in Mitsue’s and Noburu’s lives, distance them even from themselves.

lives lived behind glass (haru)

For the bulk of the film, Morita is careful, too, to distance scenes featuring “hoshi” from those featuring “haru”. In the first half, especially, pictorial segments between title cards are unlikely to contain both a “hoshi” shot or mini-scene and a “haru” one. In the film’s final half-hour, however, Morita brings the modern lovers together syntactically, cinematically. Both the percentage of close-ups and the likelihood that “hoshi” and “haru” scenes will be juxtaposed between message texts more than doubles in the film’s last quarter. Then, in the final scene, Mitsue and Noburu stand at opposite ends of the station platform, holding the floppy disks by which they plotted to identify each other. Morita marks the climactic moment by simply, classically, cutting back and forth between shot and reverse shot close-ups of the pair, until, in the penultimate image, Noburu steps forward, clears his separation shot’s frame and, cut, enters Mitsue’s, consummating a full two-shot.

Notes on Mohouhan: postmodern masterpiece (22)

With his 2002 box-office hit Mohouhan (Copycat Killer), Morita synthesises many of his thematic, technical and structural fixations in a provocative, thrillingly virtuosic, and surprisingly affecting feature. (23)

In the first third of Mohouhan

Tofu manufacturer Yoshio Arima worries when his twenty-something granddaughter, Mariko, never makes it back from a night out. Ten months later, Shinichi Tsukada, the sole survivor of a family massacre, discovers a severed arm and a high-end shoulder bag in a Tokyo park. The killer, his voice scrambled, calls in to a TV talk show, declares the bag is Mariko’s, the limb is not. The same scrambled voice phones Arima, sends him to a fancy hotel skybar, and, while the old man orders a second scotch and water, deposits Mariko’s watch in his mailbox. As bumbling police profilers debate the psychology of “tagging” and BBSers interpret the pictorial clues the killer posts online, the anonymous killer announces he’ll broadcast, live, exclusively on CD Phone, his next murder, and demands that 5% of the proceeds from the sales of said phones go to UNICEF. Two clumsy fools try to access the broadcast while driving a winding mountain road. The live murder they see, however, is not on their new-bought CD Phone, but on the road in front of them. A careening car slams through the railing, sails over a cliff. Newscasters report that the bodies of Hiromi Kurihashi and Kazuaki Takai, and physical evidence linking them to the crimes, were found in the recovered car and that the police now consider the case closed.

densely-packed visual information in Mohouhan

Mohouhan‘s first 37 minutes are densely-textured and tightly-plotted. (24) Over the opening titles a female voice announces, in English, that “people who are intellectually supernormal are apt to become bored” and what follows sometimes feels like an ADD patient edited it. The film employs multiple languages, images are packed with graphics, and the audience is asked to attend to important textual, sound, and visual information simultaneously.

The movie opens with a wide view of a helmeted man on motorbike making a delivery. The action happens 22 times in seven seconds, the takes dissolving into each other so that there are sometimes four slightly differently-framed deliveries superimposed. Dizzying camera work emphasises the TV news hosts’ weird hype. (25) “Hyper-real” quick-cut, zooming, handheld shots mark the discovery of the bagged arm as a live-from-the-scene media event. A DVD mini-doc’s maudlin Photoshop effects relay Shinichi’s (Jun’nosuke Taguchi) super-tragic backstory. And outrageous shampoo commercials (shot for the film by Morita and his crew) pre-empt the narrative programming. It’s every technical trick in the book run through the trash compactor. (26)

weird TV hosts in Mohouhan

In the first part of his movie, Morita, of course, pokes fun at a modern short-attention-span media culture. He creates a world in which both cops and killers not only use the latest state-of-the-art gadgets, but think, live, as cogs in a high-tech, mass-market machine. It’s not enough for the killer to kill, he must kill on the most so-up-to-the-minute-no-one-even-has-one-yet cellphone. Even Grandpa Arima (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is susceptible. When forging the letter, ostensibly from his granddaughter, with which he hopes to calm Mariko’s mother, he plagiarises the lyrics of a cheesy pop song.

The protagonistless plot onto which all this pandemonium hangs asks, but hardly begins to answer, the narrative question: who is the killer?

Part 2. Two years earlier. In a fit of rage that has something to do with the ethics of menu sequencing and oral sex, smooth-talking Hiromi Kurihashi smashes a young woman’s skull against his car’s passenger side window. He buries her in a forest and, distraught at the prospect a life (his) ruined, looks into the heavens and screams, “PEACE! HELP ME!” Koichi Amikawa, aka Peace, helps Hiromi write the dead girl’s parents a letter and proffers a Leopold-Loeb-like plan: commit motiveless murders that will make their victims and (even if anonymously) themselves famous. So they collect beautiful young women in the basement of Peace’s out-of-the-way villa. Eloquent polyglot Hiromi scrambles his voice, deals with the media; Peace masterminds. When one of Hiromi’s pals, a pudgy, effeminate Kazuaki Takai, starts suspecting his buddy may be behind the murders, Peace contrives to have Hiromi frame Kazuaki for the murder of Shôji Maehata, the husband of Shigeko, the journalist who wrote a book about Shinichi, the survivor of the Tsukada family massacre who now lives with the Arimas (but that’s another basket of plots Morita crams into the film). Driving down a winding mountain road, Maehata’s corpse in his trunk, Hiromi discovers not only that Kazuaki is not unconscious in the backseat, but that his brakes, suspiciously, aren’t functioning. His careening car slams through the railing, sails over a cliff.

Kazuaki squirts cream in Mohouhan

Part 2, following serial-killer genre conventions, shows Peace (Masahiro Nakai) and Hiromi (Kanji Tsuda) at work. But the film’s absurdist tone is distinctively Morita’s. Characters are typed and performances pushed – idiotic Kazuaki (Takashi Fujii) pops whole strawberries into his mouth, slurps cream from a tube; Hiromi, snakelike, extends his tongue a good three inches beyond his lips, reels in a coin he’s copped from a potential victim. Individual images, too, are more outrageous than they were in the first half hour. During Hiromi’s first kill, unmotivated, alternating orange and turquoise lights garishly illuminate the interior of his parked Porsche. And the murderers, composed around what the low camera angle and the lighting’s tonal contrasts suggest is a distant but giant pineapple, munch pineapple.

Media-mocking persists. Peace tells the women he’s chained, who slurp beans from a pan or (incongruously) work giant jigsaw puzzles: “Everyone will know your name. Everyone will know your face. Everyone will mourn your death. Isn’t that wonderful?” But more serious themes begin to emerge. When Peace tells his partner “We’re locked in our roles from the moment we’re born” he introduces the questions of determinism and responsibility, nature and nurture, which snowball in the film’s last half hour. Peace watches Hiromi saw into a fatty steak, swig an expensive red wine. “You’re a real animal”, he remarks. One professionally baffled newscaster, on the other hand, can’t understand the killings, can’t imagine the perpetrators are “fully human”. (27)

When Hiromi dies (again) at the end of part 2, the film finds its focus … Peace.

Part 3. Ostensibly for the dead boy’s beautiful sister’s sake, Peace goes on a national media tour to clear Kazuaki’s name. Grandpa Arima, young Shinichi, and Shigeko the reporter, spurred by Peace’s televised claim that though there were indeed two killers, Kazuaki was not one of them, mount an investigation of their own. When Peace and Grandpa bump into each other in a park, they wax philosophical about the nature of evil, nature versus nurture. The next day, Arima remembers having seen Peace pass his tofu shop a year back … with Hiromi. The police are called back in. Their plan: trick Peace into confessing. When Shigeko confronts Peace on national TV, claiming the murders copied those described in a book published in America – ludicrously titled News Value, by, incredibly, Seattle Slew Jr! – Peace retorts that, no, the crimes were entirely original. Someone phones into the talk show and, in a scrambled voice, asks Peace why he commits crimes. Does he enjoy it? “No”, Peace replies, “I do it out of a sense of mission.” From the wings of the broadcast stage, Arima, the man on the phone, stands, quietly scolds the young man he sees as a pathetic monster. Peace takes it all, and when Arima is finished, the young man raises his left hand, two fingers parted in a “peace” sign, and then … EXPLODES … his digital head launched into the rafters, spinning, raining digital ash on the talk-show set below.

baffled detectives in Mohouhan

In part 1 the invisible killers lead Arima, the police, and the media on a wild goose chase, through a field of irrelevant, incomplete, or downright false clues. In part 3, the invisible director uses the clichéd forms of genre filmmaking to hide interpretative landmines. In Mohouhan, scenes which fulfill the generic function of “explanatory backstory” in fact explain little. The flashback in which grade-school Hiromi comforts grade-school Kazuaki after the latter has been wrapped up in a mattress, for example, has limited illuminating value, for if it “explains” Kazuaki’s later obsession with his friend, it seems to jibe poorly with what we learn about Hiromi himself. And the scene Morita includes towards the end of the film, in which a police profiler literally maps out Peace’s all-too-common family history – parents divorced, mother remarried – as somehow crucial to an understanding of how he turned out, is challenged by performance (the cops who listen to the lecture are bored and puzzled, one even plays with his PDA), (28) sound (Morita employs the same music here he uses to mock the media), and image (aimless looping pans over the profiler’s map). Backstory is a filmic cliché, Morita’s film seems to be suggesting, that illicitly predetermines the result of the nature-nurture debate.

That debate is explicitly introduced into the dialogue when Arima and Peace meet in the park. (29)

Arima: As time passes I begin to wonder how the killer could have become someone who could kill Mariko? What were his father and mother like? Did something terrible happen in his childhood? Surely no one is born evil. Something changed him.

tête à tête in the park in Mohouhan

The old man yearns for an explanation for the tragedy of his life and seeks it in the conventions of narrative storytelling. (30) But this line of thought, that everything makes sense, causally, somehow, in the end, forces Arima to ask how Mariko could have become the killers’ victim. “Maybe she took a wrong turn”, he thinks out loud. Peace replies, “I can’t imagine that happening in your family.” Yes. Arima, after all, seems like a nice man. Surely, if nurture counts for anything… But. Narrative truth is: Arima’s family is hardly well-adjusted. His irresponsible son has left his mentally unstable wife in the old man’s care. And his granddaughter, also in his care, goes missing on what Morita’s meager visual clues might suggest is some kind of compensated date. In any case, in response to Peace’s well-meaning (or is it faux-well-meaning?) support,

Arima: What do you know about my family?

tête à tête in the park in Mohouhan

To which,

Peace: As little as you know about mine.

Touché. What does one know? What does any of it explain? Who am I? And why?

Still, Arima, in his showdown with the man who murdered his granddaughter, can’t shake the need for a rationalisation, a comforting, anomie-defying explanation. “The world will soon forget you,” he tells Peace. “Teach love! … But you don’t have it in you, because you never had a family that loved you.”

Peace listens politely, all choked up, and, in his final, telling line says simply to Arima and, it seems to me, to the premodernist audience who have been taught to itch for cozy explanations like Arima’s, “Thank you. Do you feel better now?”

Then Peace blows up on national television. (31)

Epilogue. The police find Peace’s villa’s dungeon. Shinichi gets a much-needed hug. Shigeko catches one last glimpse of her dead husband. And Arima receives a letter. From Peace. The disintegrated hero has left a legacy, a baby, tucked away in the same park where Shinichi found Mariko’s arm. The disintegrated killer asks Arima to raise the child, to prove nurture conquers nature. Mohouhan‘s minor key theme modulates into a stirring major key coda. The camera cranes up, high above the park, as Grandpa, holding the newborn foundling in his arms, gazes up into the morning sky.

False all around. And thrilling. And a fitting finale from a filmmaker who trades in absurdity and doubt, in virtuosity, eccentricity and individualism. A filmmaker whose “mainstream” films reject the mainstream.

Endnotes

  1. Aaron Gerow, “Keiho has too much trickery, too little substance”, The Daily Yomiuri, 29 April, 1999. In my brazen “ranking” of Morita’s films, Family Game, Deaths in Tokimeki, Sorekara, (haru), Keiho, The Black House (Kuroi ie)and Mohouhan are reckoned exceptional; Kitchen and Last Christmas embarrassments; the rest fall in the wide range in-between.
  2. Keiko McDonald, “Family, education, and postmodern society: Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Family Game”, East-West Film Journal, vol. 4 no. 1, December 1989, p. 55. The Numatas, however, don’t seem particularly affluent; and the attack on the educational system – as distinct from jabs at indolent students and ineffectual, prestigious-driven parents – is lost on me. When Adam Knee writes that “[The tutor] represents the agrarian past of the postindustrial present, the proletariat this middle-class family defines itself in opposition to” he writes in the language of traditional interpretation, a language, it seems to me, that may be meant to lend Morita’s comedy a grand philosophical meaningfulness that makes the time Knee spent writing about it worthwhile. See Knee, “The Family Game is up: Morita revises Ozu”, Post Script, vol. 11 no. 1, fall 1991, p. 46. There is, of course, very little about the tutor that could be called “agrarian”, and this middle-class family has certainly not consciously “defined itself” against anything. In any case, the rush to find representations or symbols is, as Susan Sontag pointed out over 40 years ago in “Against Interpretation”, one that violates the nature of the artwork. See Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1964, pp. 3–14. Another example: though Morita, to be sure, associates Family Game‘s characters with props – Mr Numata has his sippy-carton of soybean milk, his wife her leatherwork tools, Shinichi a telescope, and Shigeyuki his model roller-coaster – McDonald works a bit too hard to find the justifying symbolic meaning in these inanimate objects she calls ciphers. She writes that “[the] space warp toy featured in Shigeyuki’s room… is the perfect construct of a life mapped out for him. He must not be ‘derailed’. All must go swiftly, smoothly along the given, if perilously ‘warped’, course from elite schooling to college to status and security in the workplace.” (p. 62.) Of course, there’s no implication of derailment or warping in the film – this is simply a case of McDonald’s extending the somewhat forced metaphor. And it may be worth noting that, while Shigeyuki is not too keen on the life that’s mapped out for him, he does enjoy and, according to his mother, always has enjoyed roller-coasters. One might also ask whether the tutor, too, is implicated in McDonald’s space-warp toy’s symbolic “endless circle of fierce competitiveness” since he also is shown playing with the model.
  3. McDonald sees the teacher as “a creature of rules and regulations, a stranger to kindness and imagination.” See “Family, education, and postmodern society”, p. 62. I wonder what regulations this instructor is following when he – quite imaginatively, if you ask this 10-year veteran of teaching often-lazy students – chucks the flunked tests out the window!
  4. Morita’s propensity for exaggerating the chewing and slurping sounds of his characters in Family Game has been remarked upon, by McDonald, Knee and others. McDonald noticed it again in Sorekara and suggested it was used, as in Family Game, to “give a comical dimension to the incommunicativeness of [father and son].” See “Back to the mirror of the past: Morita’s Sorekara (1985)” in From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Film, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, 2000, p. 266. But the fact that sound design emphasising both smacking lips and utensils sawing through steaks is employed during Mohouhan‘s Peace and Hiromi’s supper conversation in the villa, or that Keiho‘s Detective Nagoshi never stops chewing his gum and even spits, loudly, in close-up, or that Lost Paradise (Shitsurakuen) (1997) ends with close-ups of the double-suiciders’ rather sloppily chomping duck and a spinachy vegetable, or that we are treated to a high volume grinding of teeth, flesh and handcuffs at Deaths in Tokimeki‘s climax, or that, in Sorekara itself, Daisuke and his writer-friend slurp sake and soba while chatting, suggests that lack of communication, though figuring prominently in both Family Game and Sorekara, doesn’t seem to be a major raison d’être for these sound mixing idiosyncrasies.
  5. McDonald finds Morita’s “mode of representation” “cartoon-like”. She correctly sees that Morita avoids traditional shot-reverse shot set-ups in Family Game but when she suggests that Morita’s characters are “most often” presented frontally, “as they might appear to an audience in a theater”, the numbers are against her. See “Family, education, and postmodern society”, p. 64. Only about 20% of the film’s shots could be considered particularly frontal, and only slightly more than half of those exhibit rigorously flat space. Perhaps McDonald’s misapprehension, though, is evidence of the “staying power” of those occasional flat, frontal compositions.
  6. Knee believes that, unlike Ozu’s “pillow shots”, Morita’s shots of the industrial landscape in Family Game are “literal signifiers of desolation… clearly commenting on the physically and spiritually decayed and oppressive milieu of the modern family… Morita retains one of Ozu’s favourite subjects for such images, the industrial smokestack, but here one is far more likely to think of corporate pollution than pictorial beauty.” See “The Family Game is up”, p. 44. Though corporate pollution is likely an issue for Morita – it’s even an explicit background topic in his 1999 The Black House – the filmmaker’s framing of industrial architecture and urban landscape, in Family Game, 24 Hour Playboy (Ai to heisei no irootoko), (haru), Lost Paradise, Keiho and The Black House especially, suggests a keen interest in pictorial beauty.
  7. McDonald imagines Shigeyuki’s rivalry with Tsuchiya stems from metaphorical sociological concerns – the “fierce competitive drive nurtured in youths destined for elite schools” – rather than from the embarrassing personal history Shinichi tells the tutor their rivalry in fact stems from. See “Family, education, and postmodern society”, p. 63.
  8. The average shot length in Sorekara is 25 seconds, two seconds longer than in Family Game, despite the fact that, unlike the earlier film, Sorekara contains several shot-reverse shot sequences. According to Barry Salt, the average shot length for mainstream films between 1982 and 1987 was about six seconds. See Salt, Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis, London, Starwood, 1992 edition, p. 296. Salt, 144f and passim, suggests excessively short or abnormally long ASLs (average shot lengths) often correlate to the work of an auteur. Morita’s work examined here, of course, is made up of both extremely long and extremely short shots. Deaths in Tokimeki‘s opening pinball “scene”, for example, consists of 54 shots in 30 seconds, following by one 20-second shot.
  9. Other long takes include: an early scene of exposition between Hiraoka and Daisuke; and a virtuoso shot in which Daisuke, seen in a garden through a second-storey window near which a girl practice the violin, 18 seconds and no cuts later, appears inside the room, acts, disappears, and is seen again, through the window, in the garden. Antonioniesque, but more stiffly (in a good way) executed.
  10. Indeed, McDonald mistakenly labels the first of these a freeze frame. See “Back to the mirror of the past”, p. 262.
  11. It’s important to avoid the temptation to intellectualise this stasis, to reduce it to a metaphor. The lack of movement is first of all a visual cue and as such elicits a physiological response. It, like a winding page-long Proust sentence or a Francis Bacon figure’s gaping black mouth, is felt, rather than understood.
  12. Of course, a full redaction critical analysis of Morita’s film, Tomomi Tsutsui’s screenplay and Soseki Natsume’s source novel is required to determine the extent of the director’s contribution to the work. Though it is full of shrewd observations, McDonald’s essay on Sorekara is, like almost all adaptation analysis, methodologically iffy, the observations apparently coming catch-as-catch-can as opposed to based on a scientific line-by-line comparison of the redacted materials.
  13. “Circle of attention” describes the actor’s extent of awareness of goings-on around him or her. See, on this, Constantin Stanislawski, An Actor Prepares, Routledge, New York, 1936, pp. 72–94. A lecturer’s large circle of attention, for example, may include distance points in the auditorium. A typist may focus only the keyboard at her fingers. A paranoid’s attention may be fixed at a point eight feet behind him.
  14. See Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto and Scott Zigler, A Practical Handbook for the Actor,Random House, New York, 1986, pp. 13–18, re this terminology. An “action” is the actor’s objective for the scene. The actor may scold, ignore, hypnotise, castrate, sweet-talk, test, show the twit who’s boss, placate, etc. From these actions, audiences deduce emotional states.
  15. Daisuke himself admits his smile is a mask when, while tasting a vintage wine with his brother and sister-in-law, his brother asks why he’s so relaxed. Daisuke simply smiles and replies: “Appearances are deceiving.” Morita, quoted in “Girl Talk”, International Herald Tribune, 31 October, 2003, thinks his fascination with performance and its relation to identity stems from having been raised in a traditional ryotei restaurant, watching “customer-service” personnel at work: “I used to watch children’s TV programs in a room full of geishas with thick makeup. The following day, when they came to collect their wages, I’d see them in their jeans with no makeup. They were pretty much like actresses.” Gerow correctly saw Morita’s 1999 film as “an exploration of identity, acting, and scripted spectatorship.” See “Keiho has too much trickery”. Indeed, questions of acting and identity are explicitly linked in that film. The suspected murderer, Shibata, is, we slowly learn, masquerading as someone who’s taken up acting and is faking schizophrenia. When, while the prosecutor reads his indictment, the young man bursts into a speech from Hamlet I.4, we’re not sure if he’s crazy or auditioning! The film is littered with scenes of rehearsal and staged performances. The woman in charge of Shibata’s psychiatric evaluation even tells her pathetic mother to “stop acting”. All these references to performance in a movie in which the driving questions are “who is this young man?” and “why did he kill those two people?” might shed light on the enigmatic title card at film’s end that suggests Keisuke Kudo – the vengeful killer, “Shibata” unmasked, shorn of his false identities – “has at last become a real human being”.
  16. Other visual incongruities in Sorekara include architecture (sliding paper doors and French windows in the same building) and costuming (the juxtaposition of kimonos and suits).
  17. Similarly, and even more distressing, Family Game‘s tutor mouths words as he reads, slowly, having apparently considerable difficulty negotiating Shigeyuki’s junior-high level text. It’s not surprising, in and of itself, to see 12 year-old Hiromi move his lips while reading Koichi Amikawa’s name in Mohouhan, but Morita’s shooting the action in close-up and the several other references to such activities in his films points to, perhaps, another particular authorial fetish.
  18. Released two years before Sorekara, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy used the same tactics to ridicule Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. But Morita’s scene spirals further out of control when the journalist unexpectedly starts lecturing in Russian. This momentarily stymies the bewildered copycat.
  19. Shunji Iwai’s extraordinary Riri shushu no subete (All About Lily Chou-chou) (2001) uses chat-room banter to similarly ambiguous effect. Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, released two years after (haru), treads similar ground in a structurally formulaic fashion.
  20. A “separation” shot is one that has nothing in its first frames seen in the previous shot’s last frames. If the heads of shot B and the tails of shot A have subject matter in common, they are called “continuity” shots. Separation shots allow editors to build the rhythm of a scene without having to worry about “matching” action from shot to shot. Fewer than 10% of (haru)‘s cuts are continuity cuts. By contrast 67 out of 100 cuts I counted in a randomly selected section of Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road (1999) were continuity cuts. I suspect average numbers might be even higher for less artistically adventurous films.
  21. A “hard” sound cut is one in which, usually at the picture cut, there is an abrupt replacement of one sound or set of sounds with another. By contrast, sound editors typically will smooth the picture editors’ cuts by ensuring some sound – music, ambience, dialogue, effect, a combination of these – flows over the juxtaposed images. Morita, like, say, Leos Carax, a grandchild of the New Wave, even goes so far as to insert a silent, black title card – “You’ve Got Mail” – into the middle of a duet Mitsue’s karaoke buddies sing. Morita marks another dramatic scene, in which Mitsue finds out her sister is the chat-room’s “rose”, is marked by jump cut focus changes that remind me of the use of the same eccentric device in a similarly intense scene in Carax’s Mauvais sang (1986).
  22. I use “postmodern” in John Barth’s sense, following Umberto Eco, as a combination of premodernist and modernist aims, a synthesis which takes seriously both traditional concerns and contemporary skepticism about those concerns. See Barth’s “The Literature of Replenishment”, The Friday Book, Putnam, New York, 1984, pp. 193–206. Eco, “Postmodernism, irony, the enjoyable”, Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1984, p. 67, suggested that the postmodern attitude is that of

    a man who loves a very sophisticated woman, and who knows that he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say this, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, ‘I love you madly’.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. …[B]oth will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love. (67)

    Here, the emotional stake is high and real and as old as the hills: love. But the historical context is low and surreal and distinctly contemporary: a world exemplified by the mass-marketing of kitschy lowbrow romance fiction at the checkout stands of the local supermarket. The postmodern world. This context inevitably colours the presentation (“As Barbara Cartland would put it…”) of the stake, but it doesn’t change it. Importantly, at issue here is a grasping for a way to express a premodern attitude in a historically postmodern world. Perhaps this postmodernist tension, between modernist stylistic devices and basic premodern human concerns, is what McDonald senses when she writes that, in Family Game, “theatrical artificialities are strongly counterbalanced by the universal emotional appeal of the characters.” See “Family, education, and postmodern society”, p. 64. The most obvious example of this kind of postmodernism in Morita’s oeuvre is, however, (haru), a film in which, despite the modern world’s alienating technology and the filmmakers’ modernist technique, a distinctly premodern story, a love story, emerges.

  23. Mohouhan was the top-grossing domestic film five weeks in a row (8 June through 10 July, 2002), eclipsed at the Japanese box office by only Spider-Man, Shaolin Soccer and Men in Black II.
  24. Derek Elley, “Copycat Killer”, Variety, 24 September, 2002, wrote that Mohouhan included enough plot for a mini-series. In “Narrative trajectories through recent Japanese cinema”, Riccardo De Los Rios and I suggest that one of the tendencies of recent Japanese cinema is the “cuing” of a series of absent (because unnecessary, because “we all know what happens in this kind of movie anyway”) traditional scenes by a single member of the series. For example, the series of scenes one might expect after Arima is stood up at the hotel skybar includes (i) Arima reports the voice scrambled message to the police, (ii) the police decide to tap his phone, (iii) the police set-up the tap and wait for a call, (iv) the call comes in. Morita skips the first three steps, figuring his audience, sophisticated viewers of policiers, will be able to fill them in.
  25. Morita’s TV hosts are caricatures but each is distinctly typed – a nouveau mod, a bespectacled “intellectual”, an outraged airhead – and his or her performance pushed. Similarly, in Keiho, to cite just one more example of the director’s characteristic approach, the prosecutor constantly mumbles, his brow furrowed, his eyes, mole-like, rarely open, and a detective seems crazier than the suspected psychopath he interrogates, absurdly clapping his hands after each 5–4–3–2–1 finger countdown.
  26. Director of Photography Nobuyasu Kita shot Mohouhan on High-Definition video. This origination format facilitates post-production effects work. Japanese HD videographers defied much conventional wisdom about HD’s technical and artistic limitations with movies like All About Lily Chou-chou, Ping Pong (Sori, 2002), Mohouhan and even the low-budget Akarui mirai (Bright Future) (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003), “films” whose rich texture, relatively high contrast ranges, and sometimes shallow depths-of-field make them more “film-like” than, for example, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005), and Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004), which were also shot with Sony CineAlta cameras.
  27. When Peace says, half an hour later, “all people possess the capacity for evil” he’s not necessarily speaking for the director, but he’s at least stirring the pot. Even Arima concedes: “we all live with those feelings, but we suppress them.”
  28. Mocking the tedium of the police briefing (Mohouhan), the editorial staff meeting (Lost Paradise), the insurance adjusters’ conference (The Black House), is a common trope in Morita’s films.
  29. Morita’s method of shooting a scene in which two men simply converse on a park bench is magical. The filmmakers have apparently set the bench on a crane and panned it slowly back and forth so that, in the background of the shot, the park’s trees seem to be shifting left and right. At the same time, the camera pans back and forth between Peace and Arima, sometimes with the direction of the trees’ movement, sometimes against it. These contrasts of the movements’ scale and direction are heightened by slow dissolves from shot to shot – effectively creating, at points, four different sets of movement on screen at once.
  30. Keiho‘s “A” plot and the subplot involving Kafuka, her mother, and her father’s “suicide”, also centre on the search for explanatory backstories. Keisuke Kudo’s hoax mocks the value of such rationalisations. Backstories and the false interpretations of identity to which they often lead are again the subject in Morita’s The Black House. There, when insurance-adjuster-turned-detective Wakatsuki hears a rumour that an elementary schooler fell to his death in the presence of little classmates Shigenori Komoda and his (later) wife, Sachiko, he locates the class yearbook in which the two wrote their plans for the future. Shigenori longs for the death of his grandmother. Sachiko dreams of living in a “world of white”. The adjuster takes the evidence to his girlfriend, a psychologist, and her psychiatrist co-worker, Kaneishi, for professional evaluation. The latter explains to Wakatsuki that Komoda fits the profile of the psychopath and warns him to take precautions. Morita pokes fun at such diagnoses by setting the conversation in a trendy strip-club and by having Kaneishi killed, but not by Komoda, who turns out to be crazy, yes, but a victim himself.
  31. Derek Elley, “Copycat Killer”, correctly called this ending “an outré finale that’s a pure jaw-dropper.” Nothing prepares one for this self-destructive moment, and certainly nothing prepares us for the way in which the self-destruction manifests itself. I’m tempted to see Peace’s explosion, perhaps like Murakawa’s suicide at the end of Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine (1993), as an expression of pure individual will. The need to establish oneself as an individual is, of course, prominent in many of Morita’s films. Family Game‘s tutor preaches individualism by example. For Sorekara‘s Daisuke, “Authenticity” – which he apparently understands as individual instinct – “is Heaven’s Way”. And in Lost Paradise, the ill-fated couple – he loves her “imbalance”, her fluctuation between propriety and desire; she loves that “lust has bent him out of shape” – forsake society … and suicide. Still, more important, I think, than any post-facto understanding of Peace’s act, mine included, is the feeling of pure amazement Morita creates in us when it happens.

Filmography

Raibu: Chigasaki (Live in Chigasaki) (1978) 8 mm

No yohna mono (Something Like It) (1981) also screenwriter

When things begins to heat up between a bathhouse attendant, Elizabeth, and a greenhorn comedian, Shingyo, he meets someone else. Characters come and go. Sketch comedy ensues. …

Shibugakitai: Boys and Girls (1982) also screenwriter

Three boys (JPoppers, Team Shibugaki) cut class and escape to a seaside resort where they, luck would have it, stumble upon a trio of young women. …

Zuma appu: maruhon uwasa no sutorippa (Uwasa Stripper) (1982) also screenwriter

Pink cut: Futoku aishite fukaku aishite (Love Hard, Love Deep) (1983) also co-screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles

Kazoku geimu (Family Game) (1983) also co-screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for 8 Japanese Academy Awards; won Kinema Jumpo Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor

Tokimeki ni shisu (Deaths in Tokimeki) (1984) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles

A nondescript hitman, holes up in a remote country villa, alone but for a finicky manservant, waiting for the arrival of his cult leader target. …

Main Theme (1984) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles

Shibuki quits her job at the kindergarten and heads for Okinawa seeking out the divorced father of one of her former students. Along the way she falls for Ken, a wannabe magician. …

Sorekara (And Then…) (1985)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles; and poor quality region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong) poor English subtitles
Awards: nominated for 12 Japanese Academy Awards, winning for Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor; won Kinema Jumpo Awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor

Sorobanzuku (For Business) (1986) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Screenplay, Japanese Academy Awards

Salarymen in the rival No and Ra ad agencies will stoop very low indeed.

Kanashi iroyane (Getting Blue in Color) (1988)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles

Ai to heisei no irootoko (24 Hour Playboy) (1989) also screenwriter
DVD: region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong) terrible English subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Lighting, Japanese Academy Awards

Insomniac playboy-dentist-slash-jazz-saxophonist Nagashima is looking for a bedmate who can make him fall asleep. Soon after leaving one annoying girlfriend, he finds himself involved with three others, all pestering him re marriage. …

Kitchen (1989) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, and Best Supporting Actor, Japanese Academy Awards

When Mikage’s guardian and grandmother dies, she moves in with Yuichi and his transvestite father. Her hosts’ idiosyncrasies, and the state-of-the-art appliances in their fully-stocked kitchen, help her come to terms with her grief.

Oishii kekkon (Happy Wedding) (1991) also screenwriter
Awards: nominated for Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor, Japanese Academy Awards

Mirai no omoide: Last Christmas (Future Memories: Last Christmas) (1992) also co-screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: won for Best Sound and nominated for Best Editing, Japanese Academy Awards

When struggling manga artist Yuko finally designs the character that launches her career, she races to the magazine editor only to find she’s been beaten to the draw by a rival. When she dies of a heart attack during a round of golf, instead of going to heaven, she finds herself back in 1981, pen in hand, knowledge of ten years’ worth of future cartoon mega-hits in her head. …

(haru) (1996) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Actress, Japanese Academy Awards

Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise) (1997)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles; and region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong) English subtitles
Awards: nominated for 12 Japanese Academy Awards, winning for Best Actor and Best Actress; won Kinema Jumpo Award for Best Actor

Former magazine editor Kuki and calligraphy instructor Rinko are both stuck in dead-end marriages. While they spend more and more time together, their spouses start to suspect. …

39 keihou dai sanjyukyu jyo (Keiho) (1999)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles; and region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong) English subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Actress, Japanese Academy Awards; won Kinema Jumpo Award for Best Actress; nominated for Golden Bear, Berlin Film Festival

When a young actor, Masaki Shibata, jailed for the double homicide of a man and his pregnant wife, starts convulsing, hysterically spouting creepy Shakespearean lines about angels and demons, an aging court psychiatrist concludes the he’s a victim of multiple personality disorder. Because the psychiatrist’s timid assistant, Kafuka Ogawa, doubts her mentor’s diagnosis, she begins her own investigation and discovers the man Shibata murdered himself had been acquitted on an insanity plea. …

Kuroi ie (The Black House) (1999)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, Japanese Academy Awards

Insurance adjuster Keibu Wakatsuki receives an anonymous phone call from a woman who wants to know if his Showa Corporation will pay out on a policy if the holder suicides. Soon he’s sent to the home of Shigenori Komoda, a thumbless man whose missing digit the adjuster’s company thinks may not be accidental. There, Wakatsuki finds the body of Komoda’s young stepson dangling from a rope tied to a ceiling beam. …

Mohouhan (Copycat Killer) (2002) also screenwriter
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles; and region 3 NTSC (Hong Kong) English subtitles
Awards: nominated for Best Sound, Best Music and Best Supporting Actor, Japanese Academy Awards

Ashura no gotoku (Like Ashura) (2003)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles
Awards: nominated for 13 Japanese Academy Awards, winning for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress

When the four Takezawa sisters discover their father has an illegitimate love child, they investigate. Along the way, one of them, a librarian, becomes involved with the detective they hire to keep tabs on Dad; another, a widow, carries on an affair of her own, with a married man; a third is too clueless to see her husband is shacking up with his secretary; a fourth, the youngest, is pregnant by her boxer boyfriend, who is, of course, cheating on her. …

Umineko (Black-tailed Gull) (2004)
DVD: region 2 NTSC (Japan) no subtitles

Big-city beauty Kaoru marries crusty village fisherman Kunikazu, moves in with him and his stand-offish mother. Things look bleak until her sensitive young brother-in-law, Kôji, shows up and their shared passion for art leads to…

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Select Bibliography

Keiko McDonald, “Family, education, and postmodern society: Yoshimitsu Morita’s The Family Game”, East-West Film Journal, vol. 4 no. 1, December 1989, pp. 53–67.

Adam Knee, “The Family Game is up: Morita revises Ozu”, Post Script, vol. 11 no. 1, fall 1991, pp. 40–47.

Keiko McDonald, “Back to the mirror of the past: Morita’s Sorekara (1985)” in From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Film, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, 2000, pp. 256–268.

Riccardo De Los Rios and Robert Davis, “Narrative trajectories through recent Japanese cinema: Battle Royale, Suicide Club, and Mohouhan”, Film Criticism (forthcoming).

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Web Resources

Umineko – Inseperable
Article by Tom Mes for Midnight Eye Review.

Click here to buy Yoshimitsu Morita DVDs and videos at Facets

Click here to search for Yoshimitsu Morita DVDs, videos and books at Amazon.com

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About The Author

Bob Davis is an Associate Professor of Film at California State University, Fullerton, and a regular contributor to American Cinematographer magazine.