RIGHT FROM the presentation of its characters, we know that "The Family Game" is not a traditional domestic comedy. In this very funny film we meet the members of a contemporary Japanese family while they grotesquely munch some favorite foods. Mom slurps down rice. Dad sucks up a gooey egg yolk. Brother crunches a raw fish. "Everybody in my family is too much," narrates the teenaged Shigeyuki (Ichirota Miyagawa).
These introductions are only the first of many offbeat techniques director Yoshimitsu Morita uses to make "The Family Game" an unpredictable and very appealing hour-and-a-half at the movies.
The film's ostensible plot line is familiar. A tutor (performed with disquieting menace by Yusaku Matsuda) is hired by a Japanese family to improve Shigeyuki's grades. As the film progresses, the tutor helps the boy improve in the classroom and on after-school battlegrounds against the school bully. But don't get the impression that "The Family Game" is another predictable story about realizing human potential. It presents too many unsettling questions to invite comparison with "Rocky" or "The Karate Kid."
For one thing, the boy's father is drunk much of the time and conducts all important conversations in the parked family car. The helpful tutor has a few quirks, too: He spends his time painting a girl's toenails, drinking too many fluids, and saying things like, "Study hard or I'll hit you. I don't mind blood, I watch the tube all day." One wonders, in fact, if the tutor really wants to help his pupil, or if he's merely after the 30,000 yen offered as a reward for the boy's success. It's a tribute to Morita and Matsuda that such questions are always intriguing and seldom distract from the film's story line.
An important theme in "The Family Game" is the westernization and modernization of Japan. The children are always studying English and changing from traditional Japanese school clothes into American T-shirts and jackets. Shots of old Japanese fishing boats sailing along the waterways of industrial Japan are subtly disturbing.
In fact, many of the scenes have this quality. At the end of the film, for instance, we are left to contemplate the mother and her two sons as they slowly drop off to sleep. This quiet, enigmatic scene raises a host of questions about modern Japan and family relationships. Perhaps it is because of these questions that one harks back to "The Family Game" long after the projector stops rolling. THE FAMILY GAME -- In Japanese, with English subtitles, at the Outer Circle.