The Crazy Family, Sogo Ishii’s provocative, oddball satire, hasn’t screened in Scotland for 30 years
Having just relocated to a comfortable new home in suburbia, the Kobayashi family – Katsuhiko, his wife, Saeko, and their two children, Masaki and Erika – appear to be the picture of middle-class success. But the family’s comfortable bourgeois veneer begins disintegrating when grandfather Yasukuni and white ants infest their home, eating away at the woodwork. As the Kobayashis’ house begins to crumble, so does the sanity of its inhabitants. Katsuhiko takes it upon himself to keep them from the asylum…at any cost.
The Crazy Family (逆噴射家族, Gyakufunsha Kazoku) Sogo Ishii’s provocative, oddball satire, hasn’t screened in Scotland for at least 30 years. Born Toshihiro Ishii, now known as Gakuryū Ishii, the avant garde filmmaker spearheaded the Japanese New Wave with his early punk features Panic In High School (1978), Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982). Ishii’s reputation arguably rests on these early films, although he’s still active and his influence can been seen in the filmmakers whose international success has surpassed his own.
Described as “one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan,” The Crazy Family‘s original title (literally “The Back-Jet Family”) was a reference to an incident at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport in the early 1980s. The pilot of a short, internal flight fired the plane’s back-jet just before landing, crashing the plane and killing many of its passengers. Pressure of work was blamed for the pilot’s action. “With Crazy Family,” Ishii later claimed, “I wanted to show the Japanese family as I saw it.” Co-writer and manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, now a controversial, conservative figure in Japan, told Monthly Film Bulletin in 1986:
Kramer vs Kramer, Ordinary People and The Family Game are all admirable films dealing with family problems. They are serious films, much praised by critics, and some people regard them as masterpieces. But some of us think differently. We consider them timid films, more or less like the TV family dramas made for middle-aged audiences, and the critics like them more than we do. And so Sogo Ishii and I decided to make a more radical film on the same subject. We wanted film about the family that would be filled with fun and poison… There are four things that traditionally frighten the Japanese: earthquakes, thunder, fire and fathers. This list is as valid now as it ever was.
Though it didn’t lose money, The Crazy Family was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not hugely popular domestically. “Everyone in Japan just complained that they didn’t understand my films,” Ishii later reflected. Though the film made a bigger impact abroad, according to writer David Cairns, “Most western critics found it wearisome and baffling”. As related by Shock Cinema’s Steven Puchalski, “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.”
In the UK, however, critic Tony Rayns saw its value immediately, noting “a major step forward for Sogo Ishii”. Writing in early 1986, Rayns observed that The Crazy Family “is a live action comic strip, each sequence shattered into component images like panels on a page and edited to rock rhythms.” Rayns continued:
The stylistic attack is matched, blow by blow, by the ruthlessness and cruelty of the humour: satire, slapstick, pain and black comedy are primary elements, but the film goes beyond them all into an area harder and more vicious than anything seen on screen since the early days of Monty Python. Its triumph is that it is (a) consistently funny, and (b) sustained as a narrative, rather than collapsing into a series of sketches.
if…. director Lindsay Anderson was also a fan. As recorded in Michael Palin’s diaries, Anderson preferred it to the then-recent A Room With A View, An Englishman Abroad, and even the Python’s own Private Function. Ishii’s film was the only one he’d liked recently, Anderson told Palin, since “the violence is so productive!”
Though it’s never been released on DVD in the UK, The Crazy Family is a landmark in Ishii’s ouevre and Japanese cinema. It was his first commercial work, following the trio of dystopian punk films that made his name, but was immediately followed by an almost 10-year gap before his next feature, the thriller Angel Dust (1994). Thwarted from making the films he wanted to make, Ishii concentrated on experimental short films, music documentaries (notably Half Human, with Einstuerzende Neubauten) and TV movies. The next phase of his work would be his self-proclaimed psychedelic years, before a slight return to his roots with Electric Dragon 80.000 V (2000). In 2010, he announced his “artistic rebirth”, Bowie-style, as Gakuryū Ishii, before returning to features once more with 2012’s Isn’t Anyone Alive? With his latest, Punk Samurai Slash Down, due this year, it’s the perfect time to (re)discover his weirdest.
The Crazy Family screens at Matchbox Cineclub’s Weird Weekend on Sunday 3rd June. Tickets from £5, day and weekend passes are available. All tickets available from CCA’s box office, 0141 352 4900, or online: bit.ly/weirdweekend.