Dysfunctional families don't get much more entertaining than the one in Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! First-time director Yoshida Daihachi's black comedy is clever, subversive, and quite surprising for a commercial film. Teenaged Kyomi Wago (Aimi Satsukawa) lives in the gorgeous Japanese countryside, where the leaves are green, the fields are yellow, and the sky is a piercing blue. However, Kyomi's theme colors may actually be red and black; her home life is the model of dysfunction, possessing enough sordid gossip to delight any fan of overwritten Asian prime-time dramas. The audience initiation into Wago family warfare begins when Kyomi's parents are killed in a bloody car accident right in front of her eyes. But the real fireworks begin when the family's black sheep, elder sister Sumika (Eriko Sato of Cutey Honey), returns home for the funeral.
Sumika's arrival triggers the revelation of the family's past, which is rooted in her near-psychotic desire to be an actress. Leggy, slim, and impossibly top-heavy, Sumika has pin-up idol written all over her (Sato initially rose to fame as a bikini idol), but she's also convinced that she has actual talent, and nobody - not even family - is allowed to tell her otherwise. A few years back, Sumika was refused funds to chase her dream, after which she flipped out and attacked her own father with a knife, ultimately scarring her elder brother Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase) and raising the family tension level to Defcon 5. With her bitchy demeanor, superior attitude, and complete disregard for others, Sumika is as a patently unlikeable character, and Eriko Sato does an ace job at making her worthy of audience scorn. Sumika is obviously untalented and a total brat, so a good comeuppance is justly deserved.
However, she's already received her just desserts, and in an unexpected and quite entertaining way. After scarring Shinji and turning to prostitution to fund her move to Tokyo, Sumika became the subject of a horror manga about an evil girl who kills, screws, and raises hell in order to realize her dream of becoming an actress. The talented creator of that manga? None other than Sumika's sister Kyomi, who was unable to express her disapproval of her sister through traditional means (e.g., conversation), and decided to play comic book creator instead. Kyomi even won a manga contest with her Sumika-based work, and the local populace devoured the published result. Prompted by the attention and gossip, the family sent Sumika to Tokyo with a sizable allowance, granting her wish and sweeping the sordid mess beneath the rug.
The allowance wasn't enough though, as Sumika is back in town and deep in debt, plus she wants even more family dough. However, Shinji won't give it to her, as finances are currently quite tough. Shinji is also newly married to Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku), a bizarrely happy housewife who deals with stress by acting insanely cheerful. Even when abused by Shinji, she attempts to put on a happy face, and even goes out of her way to befriend Sumika. But Sumika hasn't mellowed much; she still has unique ways of getting want she wants from Shinji, and her attitude towards Kyomi - who's still nursing guilt from the fallout of her manga - takes on a sinister, less-than-sisterly edge. With Kyomi vaguely in danger, Shinji brooding in the middle, and Machiko smiling incessantly in the background, it looks to be one uncomfortable reunion for the Wago clan. Something has to give - will it be Shinji's temper, Sumika's icy resolve, or Machiko's eternally chipper attitude? Or, will Kyomi's shame give way to more creative urges?
Funuke is darker than your usual commercial film. Director Daihachi gives the twisted happenings a smart comic edge, and creates characters and relationships that are complex and involving. The film should be immediately entertaining to pop culture-attuned Japanophiles, thanks to its ripped-from-TV-drama plotline, deviant quirkiness, and unique manga connection (at one point, the film frame actually becomes manga). However, Funuke has the power to do more than just entertain, thanks to its willingness to challenge audience expectations, starting with its complex central characters. Kyomi and Shinji swing between sympathetic and just plain pathetic, and Sumika manages to earn some audience understanding - which, considering her disagreeable character, is quite surprising.
Sumika is actually the star of the film, getting more screen time than her inherently more likable siblings, and she earns every minute of the spotlight. The character is an amazing piece of work; she's vain and arrogant, but also hopeful and a bit unfortunate. Sumika's belief that she has talent is obviously misguided, and yet it also makes her identifiable and even pitiable. The average person sometimes believes that they're special, and occasionally wishes for the good fortune that would justify that misplaced vanity. Sumika is that human emotion entertainingly exaggerated, but not so much that it's impossible to see someone we know - or perhaps a bit of ourselves - in her.
Sumika's cruelty towards Kyomi makes her exceptionally unlikable, especially since Kyomi bears such remorse for creating her family-shaming manga. But the situation also makes one wish for Sumika to mature or perhaps forgive Kyomi, in hopes that this family might heal just a little bit. One of Funuke's odd joys is that it places a completely hateful character at the center of its story, and yet somehow asks us to care about her. Audience mileage will vary; people may loathe, detest, sympathize with, or even feel a strange affection for Sumika. However, they're guaranteed to feel something.
Anchoring the film is Hiromi Nagasaku, who plays the too-happy Machiko to an annoying, pitiful, and finally endearing degree. Machiko is easily the film's most likable character, in that she's the outsider to the messed up Wago clan, and yet seems committed to bringing everyone together with her unflappable, but not invulnerable cheer. She's given to some extraneous quirks, but Nagasaku sells every inch of Machiko with a fiercely irony-free performance, making her exaggerated character and inner desperation exceptionally winning. As the husband and morose breadwinner Shinji, Masatoshi Nagase exudes hangdog sympathy. His character is put in a frighteningly difficult position, and one can't help but feel for him.
Funuke isn't exactly a rollercoaster of emotions, but it does engender a feeling that rises and falls in the vicinity of one's stomach. The movie delivers its melodramatic details deftly, and with a refreshing wit and subversive edge that make them compelling, disturbing, and even strangely affecting. Daihachi's direction is visually appealing and nominally subdued, but he frequently changes things up, varying the film's style and tone to punctuate the surprising emotional beats and juicy revelations. However, it's the ending that raises Funuke even higher; the climax soars and satisfies, but then gives way to a quiet, unexpected and yet appropriate finish. The dysfunctional family in Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is compelling not because their dysfunction is disturbing, but because their dysfunction is the very thing that makes them vibrant and interesting - and it may also be necessary to who they are. That's not a very positive message, but in the blackly funny world of Funuke, it's one that works. Love or hate your family, you'll never be completely rid of them. May as well make the best of it. (Kozo, Reviewed at the Udine Far East Film Festival, 2008)