In "The Family Game," playing at the Outer Circle, director Yoshimitsu Morita takes aim at contemporary Japanese society, hefts a pillow and lets 'em have it. The movie has an ingratiating ease, but the satire is so meek it almost bows out of the screen.

When Shigeyuki (Ichirota Miyagawa) nestles himself ninth from the bottom of his class, his father (Juzo Itami) hires a tutor (Yusaku Matsuda) to help the kid out. He even offers the tutor a bonus -- 10,000 yen for every notch of improvement in class rank. Caresses and boys-only bonhomie don't work, so the tutor slugs Shigeyuki in the face and tortures him with judo holds, which turns the whippersnapper right around. Spare the rod and spoil the bonus. Instruction extends to the manly arts; bobbing and weaving, Shigeyuki thrashes the classmate who had tormented him daily on the return from school. He's learned self-respect and the value of hard work.

"The Family Game" gives us the dark side of Theory Z. The student's mother (Saori Yuki) puts "I Could Have Danced All Night" on the stereo, and reminds her son cheerfully, "You have to study all night." These people look at bad grades the way "Reefer Madness" looked at marijuana -- one lapse and it's a swift slide to the gutter. Morita plainly finds such anxieties ludicrous; he employs the humor inherent in the traditional deadpan Japanese camera style to poke his fun.

The small art of "Family Game" lies in the way Morita creates a milieu with sound and image. These people don't eat -- they slurp, suck, grunt and crunch. Biting into a fish sounds like a battalion marching through thick underbrush, eating an egg evokes a visit from the Roto-Rooter man -- it's as if the characters had shotgun mikes growing out of their noses. And much of the humor of the movie is scatological. The message here -- we're all pigs -- amplifies the larger theme of the folly of careerist salvation. Morita subtly underscores this with images of the industrial park surrounding their home, a wasteland of smokestacks and great ovoid oil tanks, and he's careful to bring the whining and whistling of production into the domestic scenes. This is paradise?

But the movie only ignites once, when the tutor's disdain for this hyperactive Babbitry erupts into a food fight. Strewing noodles and rice while the father natters on about studying harder, holding the jug of soy sauce aloft like a censer as it sprinkles upon all of them, the tutor makes messy for all of us: it's a sort of "Animal House" tempura. The pity is that "The Family Game" doesn't have more of this kind of energy.. Movies 'Family' Without Fun A Meek Satire of Modern Japanese Societ