by Chris MaGee
Some truly sad and untimely news from the world of Japanese film this week. Yoshimitsu Morita, best known as the director of the 1983 classic domestic satire "The Family Game" and the erotic blockbuster "Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise)" died this past Wednesday in Tokyo. The cause of death was reported as being acute liver failure. He was only 61.
Born in Shibuya, Tokyo in 1950, Morita studied at the Nihon University Graduate School of Arts as a Broadcasting student, but it was seeing the epic movies of David Lean, like 1965's "Doctor Zhivago", which convinced Morita that being a director was the path he wanted to pursue. He first began his career as a director making 8mm films like his 1978's "Live in Chigasaki". He would follow up this debut with his first 35mm film "Something Like It" in 1981, but he wouldn't gain acclaim at home and abroad until two years later when he would direct the the satirical domestic film "The Family Game", adapted from the novel by Yohei Honma. The film chronicled how the introduction of an outsider, a high school tutor portrayed by screen star Yusaku Matsuda, could knock the disconnected lives of a middle class Japanese family off balance, or back into balance depending on your point of view. "The Family Game" would be honoured with the Film of the Year Award from Kinema Junpo that year, and Film historian Donald Richie would call it "one of the most influential [films] of its decade], while New York Times film critic Vincent Canby described its climatic food fight sequence as a "grotesquely funny shambles".
Morita had problems following through with the tag of new cinematic genius though. His output after "The Family Game" veered from the award-winning 1985 drama "And Then", based on a novel by author Natsume Soseki, to disappointing horror fare like 1999's "Black House". Many would criticize Morita's decision to puruse a career as a journeyman director, shooting throwaway films with pop idols. In 1997, though, Morita enjoyed a huge hit in japan, especially with female audiences, with his erotic drama "Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise)". Starring Koji Yakusho as a married man who has an affair with a married woman (Hitomi Kuroki), "Lost Paradise" would break attendance records, not only because of its melodramatic and tragic ending, but also for the amount of steamy sex scenes between its two stars. Recently Morita had enjoyed some renewed career success with the 2010 period drama "Abacus and Sword", which spent a number of weeks in the top ten at the Japanese box office. At the time of his death Morita had just finished production on his 28th film, "Take the 'A' Train", starring Ryuhei Matsuda and Eita.
Our deepest condolences go out to Morita-san's family, friends and colleagues during this time. We leave you with the trailer for Morita's defining masterpiece, "The Family Game". Thanks to Aaron Gerow and Mark Schilling for the details of Morita's remarkable life.