Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Great Horror Family (2004)

Original title: Kaiki Daikazoku

The rather eccentric Imawano family movies into a new suburban home. While the family's dad, being an enthusiast of the paranormal, is rather excited about the fact that something's supposed to be not quite right with the new house, the rest of his family is a bit blasé about it all. And no wonder: though Dad has no talent at actually seeing the things he's so excited about under any circumstances, the rest of the family has inherited the psychic abilities of a long line of female priests and mediums.

While the family is still moving in, Grandpa (Shunji Fujimura) has some frightening experience with the central hub for all of the house's mystery, The Room That Will Not Open, and dies. Obviously, being dead and all, he's now not the best candidate for the family's spiritual protection anymore, so Gramps's ghost moves into the Room and charges his hapless grandson Kiyoshi (Issei Takahashi) with the job. The dead old man is convinced that something important and terrible will happen soon.

In fact, Kiyoshi has his hands full with a series of ghostly appearances, aliens, yokai and other weird occurrences that happen in and around the house in a matter of minutes. Cursed gothic lolitas, men in black, whacky priests and a female ghost (Kyoko Toyama) with a crush on the young man will also make an appearance. Kiyoshi's rather inconcrete mission isn't made any easier by the utter weirdness that is the natural state of the rest of the family (Tomiko Ishii, Shigeru Muroi, Asuka Shibuya). And those are just the little daily troubles the young man will have to survive before he has to cope with the true nature of what is hidden inside The Room That Will Not Open.

The 13-episode TV show The Great Horror Family is what happens when a bunch of directors and writers - among them Takashi Shimizu and Yudai Yamaguchi - with love for and experience in all things horrific decide (well, or are hired) to make a horror comedy.

The early episodes concern mostly relatively traditional Japanese ghosties and ghoulies who all go about their usual business until their problems are solved through practical absurdity. The first episode, for example, sees the beleaguered Kiyoshi turn into a nightly ghost psychiatrist babbling away with the sort of kitchen psychology that could only convince a ghost of anything and inadvertently winning a fan for life (death?) in a female ghost named Asami. Through this, the audience learns early on that ghost are just people, too, only very dead and rather single-minded ones.

The further the show goes along, the more its emphasis wanders from funny interpretations of the more traditional ghosts to the sort of total absurdity and weirdness one expects of Japanese comedy. The show turns to situations that would be outright frightening or disturbing if they weren't played with a wink followed by a deadpan look.

I already liked the beginning of the show quite a bit (it's funny, you know), but the more absurd episodes tend to be even more entertaining. Honestly, what's not to like about a Yakuza movie parody in which Kiyoshi runs away from home and starts to work for a dead Yakuza bartender called Memento Mori, who offers living guests the opportunity to spend time with some charming living corpses, until the man's business is destroyed by zombie hit men? Or the episode in which a ghostly builder decides to renovate the family's home, and the Imawanos find themselves trapped in the bizarre, non-Euclidean labyrinth it turns into? The comedy format acts as a way for the makers of the show to be as playful as possible, and watching these guys being playful is a lot like listening to a group of very good improvising musician on a good evening.

While the show's visuals are solid, yet very TV-looking and therefore are bit bland at times, the excellent cast is what carries the show besides the humour. Everyone's not just cast exceedingly well, but game for everything, willing and able to switch from an ironic emulation of utter dramatic earnestness to bizarre grimacing at a moment's notice.

Even though not every episode's plot is something to write home about, the wild, random asides so typical of what I've learned to identify as Japanese humour make every single one of them worth watching. In this context, I'm even willing to approve of the slight sappiness that comes with the J-Drama territory.



Doug Bolden said...

The Great Horror Family is one of those shows I picked up on a whim. I saw it, went "That looks weird/crappy, why not?" Well, I said that, and came back the next day to get it, and it was sold out. So I went to Amazon, and they had bunches for cheap (I paid something like $8 for the set). Watched it, and was amazed that something this different, weird, and clever was so completely ignored. I have tried getting people to watch it, and almost all of them respond positively to it, but then never follow-up and get their own copy and finish it. Which makes me sad.

I should watch it again. The Yakuza episode has been thumping the back of my mind.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Classic question: What is wrong with people?
But seriously, you can't make much of a better offer than this show with decent enough subtitles for what amounts to coffee money.

I read something positive (and the name of Shimizu, whose stuff I usually adore) somewhere on the 'net about the show, and didn't see any reason not to try it.