Won acclaim at film festivals over three decades

Japanese helmer Yoshimitsu Morita, whose films depicted the absurdity and vulnerability of everyday life in conformist Japan, died of acute liver failure in Tokyo on Wednesday. He was 61.

Morita won international acclaim over his prolific 30-year career for movies that were distinctly Japanese, depicting the fragile beauty of the nation’s human psyche and visual landscape while daringly poking fun at its ridiculous tendency for rigid bureaucracy and ritualistic hierarchy.

After starting as an indie filmmaker working in 8 mm, Morita made his 35 mm feature debut in 1981 with “Something Like It.” His international breakthrough, however, came with 1983 black comedy “The Family Game,” starring Yusaku Matsuda as a sardonic home tutor who takes over a dysfunctional middle-class family.

Its striking cinematography, focusing on rows and rows of identical apartments and people dining solemnly sitting side by side, was an exhilarating parody of Japanese family values.

He later reunited with Matsuda for “And Then,” a 1985 drama based on a novel by Soseki Natsume. The pic won five Japanese Academy Awards and scored a director nomination for Morita.

Early regarded as a young Turk leading a new wave of Japanese cinema, Morita soon took a more commercial turn, though he continued to make arty prize winners as well.

His biggest hit was “Paradise Lost,” a 1997 drama about a middle-aged adulterous couple who end up committing double suicide. The pic was the No. 2 domestic B.O. earner for the year while scooping armloads of prizes.

Morita’s 1999 courtroom drama “Keiho” was screened in competition as Berlin, while his 2003 family “Like Asura” drama was invited to the Montreal World Film Festival. Both were literary adaptations.

He also had a more experimental, trendy side, however as shown in “Haru,” a 1996 drama about two lovers who begin and pursue their affair by email, and “Copycat Killer, ” a 2002 mystery-thriller about a serial killer who uses such tech tools as voice scrambling and webcam to advertise his crimes to the media, while baffling the cops.

Morita’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a comedy about train lovers starring Kenichi Matsuyama of Tran Anh Hung’s “Norwegian Wood,” will be released posthumously in the spring, film studio Toei said Wednesday.

Morita is survived by his wife Misao.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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