Morita Yoshimitsu's Death

The news reports are relating the sad news that Morita Yoshimitsu, the director of such great films as Family Game (Kazoku gemu, 1983), passed away on December 20 of acute liver failure. He was only 61 years old.

Morita was always a complicated, contradictory director: fascinating and frustrating but always worth watching. He emerged from the world of independent filmmaking, becoming one of the first to theatrically release an 8mm feature film (Live in Chigasaki in 1978), and later independently financing his 35mm debut (No yo na mono, or Something Like It, 1981). Family Game, which I wrote about in Julian Stringer and Alistair Phillips's Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, earned him a reputation abroad as a great social satirist, but as I argue in the piece, it also deftly intersected with popular discourses about postmodernism and fashion. After the film, Morita declared himself a fashionable or pop director (ryuko kantoku) in ads he took out in magazines, and went on to direct quite a number of questionable movies starring idols and tarento. Even with his lesser films, however, you always had a sense Morita was self-consciously thinking about the media environment, if not cinema itself, and some of his best subsequent work, such as Haru (1996), which is largely composed of text messages, are experimental in one way or another. The marvelous monstrosity that is the crime thriller Mohohan (2002) is in fact a critique of our virtual media reality. While some of the idol films are not inspiring, small works like The Mamiya Brothers (Mamiya kyodai, 2006) are absolutely endearing. 

He was a brilliant, though not always consistent filmmaker, one who was very much in touch with his times, sometimes critically engaging with them, sometimes just reflecting them. Bob Davis started his piece on Morita in Senses of Cinema by quoting my review of Keiho (1999) and by broaching the old issue of dividing directors between the auteurs and the craftsmen. While saying I place Morita in the latter, Davis tries to argue for Morita's genius. But I would actually argue that Morita is a director who complicates the division between auteur and craftsman. He was a quite contemporary director who could undermine even the notion of what constitutes an auteur, one who made us think about the status of filmmaking in Japan today. Just when people like that were necessary in our changing media environment, however, Morita sadly departed the scene. He will be sorely missed.

Update: I have made my article on Family Game available on the Yale repository.

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