Movie Review: Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー)

How dependent are you on technology? Not just your phone or your computer. Everything around you has some tech component to it, from your microwave oven to the train that you board every day to take you to work or wherever you’re going. What would happen if one morning you woke up and found that it all stopped working? That’s the premise of the Japanese social satire, (THE) SURVIVAL FAMILY.

Yoshiyuki Suzuki (Fumiyo Kohinata/小日向 文世) is the head of a modern family that lives in a bedroom community outside Tokyo. He’s a typical salaryman, riding his bicycle each morning to the local train station for the long commute into town, sitting facing a computer screen and poring over reports all day along with hordes of other salarymen who do exactly the same, then taking the train and bicycle home each evening where he sits in front of the TV to watch the evening news and his favourite game shows. His wife, Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu/深津 絵里), is a typical Japanese suburban housewife, surrounded by all the latest household appliances, going outside of their cramped apartment to do the grocery shopping and other errands, and cooking dinner for her unappreciative family as quickly and simply as she can. Bratty younger sister Yui and moody older brother Kenji (Wakana Aoi/葵 わかな and Yuki Izumisawa/泉澤祐希, respectively) are typical high schoolers, plugged into their phones, their games and their music, happily tuning out the world around them. The family’s routine gets thrown into disarray when one morning they wake up to discover that everything electrical has suddenly stopped working. No lights, no refrigeration, no running water, no TV or radio, no telephone or Internet, no cars and no trains. Nothing works anymore. At first, the family thinks it’s just an annoying and inconvenient power outage, as do all their neighbours, and they all try to go about their usual activities as best they can. After a few days, however, especially as word filters to them that everyone in the Kanto Region (home to over 42 million people) and possibly beyond is affected, they start to realise that having no electricity may just be the new reality. With food and drinking water now running scarce, and the city on their brink of chaos – something that would have been considered unthinkable in a country famous for its social order, Suzuki decides that they have no choice but to leave Tokyo and head west to Mitsue’s ancestral village near Kagoshima where they can hopefully live off the land until the electricity comes back, if it ever does come back. To get there though, they have to cycle along the now deserted expressways, braving the elements day and night, negotiating with price gougers, scrounging for food and drink, fending off neighbours who are more desperate than they are, and working together as a team, all things that none of them has ever done before.

Writer-director Shinobu Yaguchi/矢口 史靖 (WATERBOYS) has created an amusing look at city life in Japan today, and is a welcome change from the nostalgic movies (NAGASAKI: MEMORIES OF MY SON) that seem to be coming out of that country with increasing frequency of late. While those films are taking swipes at the younger generation who, many there feel, have turned their collective back on traditional Japanese values, SURVIVAL FAMILY pins the blame equally on the parents and the children. Each of the Suzukis, in their own way, has surrendered to technology, preferring to remain in their own bubble rather than trying to engage with other family members. It’s not until they have no other choice but be a family unit that they start pulling together. For the Suzukis, change comes with a lot of pain, both emotional and physical.

The film is not without its faults though. While the fish-out-of-water concept is good and Kohinata’s “zero-to-hero” performance is wonderful, the story is rather chauvinistic. The two female characters come off as one-note and, for Yui, that note is usually a C above high E. Her shrieking and whining really can really be grating. The men, on the other hand, show real character development with Yoshiyuki showing his mettle after losing his dignity far too many times and Kenji proving to everyone including himself how resourceful he can be. The story sadly hits a low point when the family makes it to Kagoshima and Yoi can be seen making clothes for the family while Kenji goes out to catch fish for dinner. Japanese directors may be longing for their countrymen and women to return to traditional Japanese values but perhaps chauvinism and sexism are two such values that deserve to die off.

Watch the review recorded in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Facebook Live on Thursday morning, September 14th, at 8:30 am HK time!

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