For Yoshimitsu Morita, who has died of acute liver failure, arguments around his career as a film-maker have long centred around his film, The Family Game (1983), which centred on a dysfunctional family in 1980s Japan. This was not his only No 1 film in the annual Kinema Junpo poll, and was by no means his highest-grossing film. But it was the film his critics, and often his public, compared him to, when judging his later work. Had he become, as the critic Mark Schilling bemoaned in the 1990s, just a purveyor of "date movies"? Were not some of his later films also multi-layered, postmodernist critiques of contemporary life? Or did his success, in having a continuous career in the film industry, derive from delivering accessible, commercial films for audiences he knew?
For Morita certainly served more than one audience. Family Game could be presented as an early teen gross-out film, but its remarkable distancing effects provoke a deeper engagement, which has given scope for a series of academic treatments. And a number of his later films aimed well beyond a teenage audience. Lost Paradise (1997) adapted a romantic tragedy that had just finished newspaper serialisation; the setting might have been contemporary, but this form of adaptation goes back to cinema's heydays of the mid-20th century, and his story reached to the beginnings of Early Modern Japanese theatre.
If Morita could still pull a mature audience back into cinemas to watch a middle-aged amour fou, it questions received wisdom as to the causes of the decline of cinema-going. But Lost Paradise was atypical in that it was virtually his only film in which he is not credited as scriptwriter; usually he was sole author of his scripts.
In later years Morita gained notice and critical success with some thrillers. His Copycat Killer (2002) approached the multiple layers of Family Game, with which it makes interesting comparisons. One of Family Game's awkward insistencies was that we heard only the collateral noises of human bodies, even when these bodies were listening to a named piece of music. The silence of the Numata family apartment in Family Game was replaced in Copycat Killer by a hyperactive soundtrack, as, seemingly, all the new media bombard us at once. But Copycat's music mocks 24/7 media, just as persistently, in its lyrics. If Nigel Kneale in the UK could presciently satirise reality TV in the form of "The Live Life Show" in his The Year of the Sex Olympics, but fail to prevent the monster's phenomenal growth, then Morita began where Kneale finished, with a live murder show. The soft ending might disappoint those who had been drawn by the frenetic surface, but leaves the viewer with little doubt as to where Morita stands.
Morita had started out as a DJ before he began making his own 8mm films – some 18 short films in the early 1970s. These became feature-length and got attention with Live in Chigasaki (1978). His first 35mm film, Something Like Yoshiwara (1981), was followed by a couple of soft-porn films for the Nikkatsu studio, which then financed Family Game for the independent Arts Theatre Guild. And Then (1985) adapted a novel by Soseki Natsume, for which he embraced pastiche to invoke the late Meiji (roughly, Edwardian) society and its repressive surface morality.
He subsequently made a number of "idol films", flimsy vehicles for pop talent that were not well received; but the overall range of Morita's work has been considerable. In (Haru) (1996), Morita was earlier than most in spotting online romance as a medium for questioning identity.
His thrillers followed, including Keiho and The Black House (both 1999). After the uninspiring Inseparable, Morita found better form with a two-handed comedy, The Mamiya Brothers, in 2006. This seemed to reinvent the long-running Tora-san formula (which involved a kind-hearted vagabond unlucky in love) for a younger generation with some success by replacing the single protagonist with two brothers, just as untutored in love. They were endearing foils for some slapstick humour that had visual reminders of much earlier cinema. Morita remade Kurosawa's Sanjuro in 2007. His last film is due for release next year.
Yoshimitsu Morita, film director and scriptwriter: born Tokyo 25 January 1950; died Tokyo 20 December 2011.