Survival Family (Sabaibaru famirî)

Japan (2017) Dir. Shinobu Yaguchi

Each successive generation is increasingly reliant on technology the further it advances, and this is perhaps most true of today’s world. So much of our lives are dependent on computerised technology, we are slaves to it.

The Suzuki family of Tokyo are totemic of today’s reliance on technology. Office worker Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) is preparing a huge presentation for his company; wife Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) does all of her household chores with a variety of gadgets; college student Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) is rarely without his headphones to play his music; and prissy schoolgirl Yui (Wakana Aoi) gossips with her friends via phone text messages.

One morning, the whole of Tokyo awaken to a power blackout. At first, it is thought to be a minor thing but hours turn to days which turn to weeks before people are scavenging for food and supplies. With rumours things are fine in the country, people start leaving in droves, the Suzuki’s among them, but going back to basics just to survive proves hard.

Shinobu Yaguchi has an interesting catalogue of films to his name, mostly concerned with slice-of-life comedy dramas that root for the underdog. In the case of Survival Family, practically everyone in it is the underdog, which is a rare occurrence indeed, despite the focus being on the Suzuki family.

It’s quite an ambitious idea to deprive one of the foremost pioneers of technological advancement in the world of something they excel at, but if any nation can hunker down and carry on undaunted, the smart money would be on the Japanese. Except Yaguchi doesn’t seem to have much faith in his fellow countrymen hence this film, which would probably be viewed as a horror film by younger audiences raised in a digital world.

Whilst it would appear amusing to us to see everyone, from office workers to school kids and those in between earnestly trying to get to work or school despite the absence of power, maybe we should admire their willingness to try – I know for a fact here in the UK, we’d all stay at home in the event of a national power cut and not wait to be sent home by our bosses.

Yet, it is hard not to find some humour in the staff at Yoshiyuki’s office be so bewildered to find their computers and phones all dead, especially after having to break the glass doors just to get in the building in the first place. Uptight Yoshiyuki is appalled when they are sent home, viewing it as a weak way out and continues to plough on with a pen and paper.

Meanwhile, Mitsue is jostling with other housewives to get some stock in from the local supermarket, where some people are aghast they can’t use their credit cards to pay! Whether this is supposed to represent arrogance or plain stupidity, it is a subtle example of how we have become too comfortable in relying on mode cons to do things for us and our inability to cope without them.

Looting doesn’t appear to be a problem, which would fit in with Japan’s famed sense of honour, yet this doesn’t stop many shops and hawkers exploiting the supply and demand maxim by hiking their prices of essentials by astronomical amounts. Elsewhere, others realise money is worthless so they barter with or trade food for items they have which others desperately require.

For the Suzukis, their destination is Kagoshima on the other side of Japan where Mitsue’s father lives. He regularly sends food parcels of frozen fish which doesn’t go down so well with her spoilt family, an attitude which is soon to change. Because literally everything that requires electricity or any sort of power, even batteries, is now inactive the family have but one option to make the journey to Kagoshima – by bicycle.

Yaguchi presents us with a series of comedy or errors as the Suzuki clan make their way cross-country and encounter a myriad of people either in the same position as them, or they are chances trying to get ahead. Some of it is rather amusing (a group of blind woman guiding them through a dark tunnel), some of it can be a little dark (a roaming pig is slaughtered for food), but the one constant is how just as they get comfortable with their situation something happens to make it worse.

There is something rather sad about the fact that people are lacking in common sense and the ability to make alternate arrangements when forced to rely on our own wits and analogue means. Yaguchi stops short of making this an indictment of a modern, molly coddled society, nor does he go overboard in extolling the virtues and benefits of a self-sufficient existence either.

By laying out the story and painting a hypothesis, we are left to wonder what we would do and how we could cope should we be deprived of electricity and the very means by which we go about our daily lives. Some might say this is a dystopian view of a modern man-made disaster, but it mostly can be seen as a slice of provocative whimsy that might be too close to the truth if we are not careful.

Admittedly, the feel good ending is a little fey when it needed something more profound to make the impact of the message hit harder, but the journey is worthwhile thanks to the committed cast, the four principals gelling well as a believable family unit and their willingness to literally get down and dirty when necessary.

Perhaps the biggest take away about Survival Family is – slight spoiler – that they didn’t disintegrate as a unit and if anything this experience brought them closer together. Maybe Yaguchi is really trying to encourage us to look to the flesh and bone in front of us for comfort and conversation, and not virtual images on a screen. A fun and thoughtful way to go about it nonetheless.