Bifff 2018 – Survival Family: comedy in the apocalypse

What happens when all the appliances in a hyper-connected, hyper-gadgetised society stop working? In Survival Family, a family in Tokyo wakes up one day to a blackout that turns out to be global. The family travels across Japan by bicycle and on foot to reach their ancestral village, coming across abandoned cities and shopping malls as well as rural pig farms; Shinobu Yaguchi turns what could be an apocalyptic situation into a comedy. The characters are stereotypes of modern Japan: workaholic father; long-suffering housewife; sulky student son; excitable, social-media addicted teenage daughter. Their larger-than-life confusion and disgust as they bang on their unresponsive phones or groan at having to use the stairs rather than the lift is funny because we recognise the stereotypes.

Yaguchi capitalises on the recognition comedy effect by in jamming together multiple genres. Survival Family plays on the conventions of disaster, road trip, family drama and coming-of-age movies. There are pastoral scenes of great natural beauty and the road-trip narrative combined with the forced return to a pre-industrial way of life encourages the audiences to appreciate the beauty of what lies beyond the city and hectic modern schedules.

Behind the film lurks the memory of the natural disasters that Japan has faced, not least the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent nuclear breakdown at Fukushima. There are scenes of mass exodus from the cities and potential riots as people let out their frustration on the police. At one point the family meets an army patrol who say they are marching from one nuclear power station to another to see if any of them will work. But this is only a setting and plays no large role in the narrative.

There is not much nuance in this film, but maybe there doesn’t need to be. The acting is exaggerated but humorous, there’s plenty of slapstick comedy and witty lines, and we get simple morals about the value of family life and a more simple, communal way of living. Ultimately Survival Family is a feel-good family movie, the sort you might watch on a plane or have on in the background while preparing dinner – unless, that is, you feel like living for a while without electronics!