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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Yen Family’: Takita’s Rich Satire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Yojiro Takita’s hilarious satire on materialism, “The Yen Family” (at the Little Tokyo Cinemas), the Kimuras are at first glance indistinguishable from their suburban neighbors. Hajime (Takeshi Kaga) and Noriko (Kaori Momoi) are an attractive couple in their 30s, and they have two bright, obedient children, 11-year-old Terumi (Hiromi Iwasaki) and her brother Taro (Mitsunori Isaki), who is 10.

The Kimuras, however, are addicted to money. Although Hajime’s office job would seem to support his family, he and Noriko have brought fresh meaning to the concept of cottage industry. Parents and kids are up at the crack of dawn to turn out box lunches for the neighborhood senior citizens to sell along with the morning paper, for which Hajime is the local distributor; any unsold meals Hajime peddles at the office. And that’s not all: While Noriko prepares breakfast, she simultaneously calls clients who subscribe to her erotic wake-up service! Each Kimura carries a personalized moneybag with a dollar sign on it; unlike Aimee Semple MacPherson, the old-time L.A. evangelist, the Kimuras like the sound of coins clinking even more than the quiet rustle of paper money. It’s not for nothing that the paterfamilias is nicknamed “Small-Change Hajime.”

The Kimuras’ daily routine, which no efficiency expert could hope to improve upon, is not interrupted by the arrival of the Amamiyas--Noriko’s brother (Akira Emoto) and sister-in-law (Midori Kiuchi)--who hope to deposit Noriko’s elderly, somewhat senile mother (Akiko Kazami) for a brief stay. Hajime presents them with an itemized bill each morning of their two-day visit; even the children present them with bills for massages. But as the Amamiyas depart in a state of perplexity and chagrin, they discover that little Taro has secretly returned his fee with an apology. Aha! He has yet to be corrupted. His soul must be saved. He must be sent a Bible with passages on the evils of materialism carefully marked.

To be sure, the Kimuras’ precisely organized existence comes unraveled, but Takita and his writer Nobuyuki Isshiki, in adapting Tashihiko Tani’s prize-winning story, develop considerable complexity and irony as it becomes progressively--and darkly--outrageous. This is very tricky material, requiring the cast to go through all sorts of changes, but the actors come through with virtuoso performances. Diminutive Mitsunori Isaki is as remarkably accomplished a child actor as Margaret O’Brien ever was.

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The Kimuras are not truly terrible people. To be sure, little Terumi, in her money madness, is pretty scary, but her parents are loving even if they exploit their children. Except for the doubting Taro, the Kimuras are actually happier than most families, and they even take time off for family outings from time to time. The provocative point that Takita makes is that if you take away the Kimuras’ compulsive money grubbing what are you going to replace it with? (His previous “Comic Magazine” was a corrosive satire on media excesses.)

The exchange of money is so crucial to Hajime and Noriko that without it even sex fizzles for them. It would in fact be no easy task for the Kimuras to rebuild their lives once Taro threatens to go live with his aunt and uncle. “The Yen Family” is a very funny film (Times-rated Mature for some sex, adult themes) that proposes no easy solutions.


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