DEATH OF THE JAPANESE BUSINESSMAN

Over the weekend of August 1st and 2nd, the Starz FilmCenter hosted the Denver premiere of Cannes Film Festival Prize Winner “Tokyo Sonata”, a film depicting the typical Japanese businessman. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known previously for his horror films, takes on a new kind of horror—unemployment. The film shows the unique effects of the recession in Japan. While unemployment in the U.S. habitually fluctuates in good times as well as bad, Japan is historically accustom to an almost 0% unemployment. Japan’s unemployment is projected to reach 6% by the end of this year.

Our protagonist and businessman Ryuhei Sasaki, abruptly loses his job to downsizing, and (it is implied) outsourcing. Unable to admit his unemployment to his family, he continues to go to work everyday. While looking for ways to fill the hours, he discovers that he is not the only victim of the changing business world. A high school classmate, unemployed of 3 months, shows him the ins and outs of public welfare, how best to spend his time and most importantly, how to hide his situation from his wife. The film isn’t all gloom and despair. Kurosawa shows the comic side of things, as the two go through food lines, and gather around barrel fires along side homeless people in the park. His classmate sets his phone to ring five times a day, which he poses as business calls. “It calms my nerves,” he claims. One scene shows the two passing the time in a library, because it is a place where you can stay and read as long as you want. Surprisingly, the library is filled with businessmen like themselves, in suits with briefcases and continuing the appearance of employment.

As the film continues the audience sees the problem of one man expand into a problem of his country. The film becomes darker and bazaar. At first, the change is subtle, but as the film moves to shots of more long queues at the unemployment office, businessmen in food lines meant for the homeless, and janitors changing back into suits at the end of each work day, it becomes apparent that the problem is an epidemic. At one point, a character asks where the earthquake is to turn the world upside down and essentially make things right again.

It isn’t just the recession. The Japanese lifestyle, including the job for life mentality is disappearing, and altering into a more complex and difficult work field. Much like the American Classic Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, the Japanese Businessman finds his traditional way of life crumbling and the life’s work that should have resulted in a comfortable life with respectful retirement instead leads to unemployment, rejection and a feeling of uselessness. An unemployment officer in the film makes it clear to Sasaki that jobs like his are not coming back; these changes are for good. But the recession does not only hurt Japanese income. A country with a strong sense of family pride, diligence, and fear of shame can no longer justify its belief that those who work hard receive reward, and those who don’t are the ones disgraced.

Screenwriter Max Mannix says he intentionally tried to create a family that could be found anywhere in Japan, representing the country as a whole. Still, there are a few deviations from normality; the oldest son joins the U.S. military and the youngest turns out to be a piano prodigy. The last thirty minutes become utterly chaotic but Kurosawa pulls together a neat ending with hope for the next generation.

 

-Rachel DeBoard