A continuing feature that asks prominent cinephiles "What film got you hooked on Japanese cinema?"
Crazy Family by Alex Zahlten
“Hook” is one of the words that even sounds painful, and “becoming hooked” likewise doesn’t really sound too attractive. Watching literally hundreds of films from Japan for the selection of the Nippon Connection Film Festival every year actually can actually at times be pretty agonizing, though the discoveries one makes are also pretty exhilarating. So which film suckered me into biting the hook?
Of course there were several, and it’s always difficult to single out one culprit. But the first that really double-crossed me as a “Japanese” film must have been "Crazy Family" by Sôgo Ishii. I partially grew up in the U.S. , so Saturday morning television stuffed me with endless hours of, among others, the Flintstones, Porky the Pig, Wile E. Coyote, Ultraman, and Godzilla. All of this seemed of one genre to me, I didn’t actually realize this had anything to do with Japan , and at the time it was more pleasant than impressive. Then, in 1988 on late-night German television – I researched the date, I had just turned fifteen – I saw Ishii’s film and it completely blew my mind.
The betrayal took place on several levels, as I can see now. The literal translation of the apt Japanese title is ‘Reverse Jet-Propelled Family’, and it’s a high-tension absurdist descent of the dream of suburbia into hysteria and obsession. At fifteen and living in a not at all high-tension suburb of Frankfurt , I must admit I didn’t quite catch the drift. But the pure filmic adrenalin thrust made me look for some explanation of what kind of film this was. The ‘What was that!?’ reflex led not to a director (Sôgo Ishii) or scriptwriter (Yoshinori Kobayashi, now infamous for his fairly right-wing Manga) I’d never heard of, but to “Japanese Film”. Later, I’d realize that not all, not most, not really any Japanese film – and indeed, not even "Crazy Family" – is on a fast track to bizarre but fascinating anarchy. I’d also realize that the film had as much to do with the 1980s in the U.S. or Germany as it did with Japan, which thankfully made me question what one means by the term “Japanese film” (as opposed to “film from Japan”). But it was the film that got me interested enough to hold an eye out, and later actively search, films from what I discovered to be an immensely varied film industry. Later on there were others like Kitano or Kiyoshi Kurosawa that gave me more pushes and tugs. But the first film from Japan to trick me into even getting the chance to understand I’d been had was the cinematic wonder of "Crazy Family".
Alex Zahlten has been the Programming Director for the Nippon Connection Film Festival since 2001. Taking place annually in Frankfurt am Main, Germany Nippon Connection is the largest film festival dedicated solely to Japanese cinema outside of Japan. The 9th edition of the festival runs April 15th to 19th.