I found it unsettling. Obviously it's harsh, demented and full of behaviour that makes Takashi Miike look almost normal, but the difference is that Ishii means it. It's punk. Imagine The Young Ones from a director who sincerely means the most extreme things being said and is launching a venomous attack on his own culture.
The story involves a happy Asian family, the Kobayashis. They do everything society expects of them and they want everything they're supposed to want. They're moving into their new house, the lack of which had until now made Katsuya Kobayashi feel a failure as a father. He goes off dutifully to work every day, squeezing himself onto the train like toothpaste trying to get back into the tube. Meanwhile his wife, Mitsuko Baisho, is drop-dead sexy and knows it, but she's also the perfect housewife and mother. (I need more Mitsuko Baisho movies.) As for their children, Yoshiki Arizono is studying night and day to get into Tokyo University, just like a million other Japanese schoolchildren every year, while thirteen-year-old Youki Kudoh talks as if she's only five or six and can't decide whether to grow up to be a pop star or a professional baseball player.
All of this is desperately normal. That's what Japan is built on. Oh, and let's not forget grandad (Hitoshi Ueki), who imposes himself on the household and represents another omnipresent side of Asian culture... the elderly relative. Social security isn't part of the fabric over there. You look after the grandparents, with "you" usually being formalised as the eldest child.
Sogo Ishii then shows that this family's normality has driven them insane. He calls this "Civilisation Sickness".
Consider Dad. Katsuya Kobayashi is at once the nicest and the most insane of the family. He's doing everything he can for his family. He simply can't let go of what he feels are his responsibilities and hence tends to lose his sense of proportion, as is shown when he starts digging up the kitchen floor to make a hole for Grandad to live in. He's going to be a psycho by the end, but despite this he's the only person here who seems to care about others. In any other film, he'd simply be a nutcase. Here though, I can't shake the feeling that Ishii agrees with him. Admittedly it's hard to see him as a viewpoint character when it comes to the white ant poison and the Friday the 13th power tool rampage, but even there, in a brutally satirical way, I think Ishii's still on his side.
It was painful to watch him at his workplace, halfway through the film. No, don't do that, please.
Baisho is properly normal, though. She does a mild striptease fairly early in the film, which is attention-grabbing but actually doesn't have much to do with anything. That's way before things start falling apart. She's just having fun and being sexy, so the fact that reviewers love talking about it is simply because a Baisho striptease is something you'd pay good money to see. (No nudity, by the way. Not even close.)
I don't think Baisho goes mad, actually. The others all have a character defect that gets blown out of control, but the worst I can say of her is that her perspectives get knocked a little out of whack. That's nothing. The important thing is that her actions are reasonable and you wouldn't be ashamed to have done the same in that situation.
Arizono on the other hand is crazy from the start. Asked by Grandad which university he's aiming for, he replies that there is only one: Tokyo University. Uh-huh. The regrettable thing about Japanese higher education is that getting into the right university matters much more than your results once you're in there, so you'll get people killing themselves over the entrance exams and then if the results aren't to their liking, taking a year (or more) out of their lives to try again next time. Tokyo University is famous for having students with psychological problems. That's Arizono.
As for Kudoh, I don't know if there's theoretically anything wrong with her, although it wouldn't kill her to talk like a human being. She's thirteen. That says it all, really. Teenagers are like that.
Finally there's Grandad Ueki, who indirectly causes the whole thing by inviting himself to stay and then being an objectionable old bugger who's impossible to live with. This is hardly unknown in Japan either, though. Similarly the World War Two stuff is normal given the time period, although not Ueki's psychological take on it, and the references to raping Chinese children were perfectly routine for the Japanese army in Manchuria. Ishii's just ignoring good taste in bringing it up, that's all.
The film could perhaps be called a comedy, although if so it's a jet-black one. It's a shattering attack on pretty much every social value Ishii can think of, which goes far enough to be kind of disturbing even for a Westerner like me, but on looking back I realise that this is a deceptively happy film. It's full of bad things, but it begins and ends in happiness. At the beginning, everyone's lovely. They have smiles on their faces and it's a pleasure to spend time with them. People like this are what society wants. Of course by the end of the film, we've travelled to a place that couldn't conceivably be what society wants... and yet the Kobayashis have again found happiness. The last five or ten minutes are where Ishii really makes it clear what he's talking about. He's delivering a sledgehammer statement, with an anarchist message as strong as that of V for Vendetta
(except from a domestic angle).
The music is distinctive, with for instance metal tubes and the sounds of sawing being used as instruments during the final scene. The acting is good, except occasionally from Arizono, but easily the most prestigious name in the cast is Baisho. (Admittedly being beautiful never hurt anyone's career, but she's an important actress who's worked with some of the biggest names in Japanese cinema.) Unsurprisingly this film didn't do much business in Japan at the time, since it's going out of its way to say and do pretty much everything unsayable that it can think of, while its message is at once revolutionary and caustic. These days though it's Ishii's best-known movie. Not necessarily as enjoyable as you might think, but you couldn't call it half-hearted.
"Always just thinking of yourselves. That's why this happened."