Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate created an intimate portrayal of Japanese life from within, and what it showed wasn’t the Japan I had a mental image of certainly.
Acclaimed documentary maker Sean McCallister followed Naoki – a formerly successful, thrice married and divorced entrepreneur who lost everything in the economic crash of the early 90s – and his much younger girlfriend Yoshei. He now works for a pittance in the Post Office in Yamagata while Yoshei works as a hostess in a bar among other things…
The couple live together in Yamagata, north of Tokyo in one untidy, cramped and windowless room. Yoshie’s too tired from her three jobs to care what their place looks like nor does she have the energy to indulge in a sex life with 57 year old Naoki. But actually, as Naoki himself pointed out, literally as he pointed to his trouser region, “Doesn’t work. Broken” and they couldn’t afford to buy Viagra to fix the problem.
This Japan isn’t the common myth Japan where everyone’s got the latest high-tech gadgetry and everyone gets a fantastic education; it showed poverty, misery and lives ruled by ludicrous regulations, intimidation in the workplace and a high rate of suicide. One of Naoki’s friends – called Mr Mushroom due to his habitual picking of mushrooms – had a brother who was one of the 30,000 Japanese people per year who kill themselves.
Not that Naoki and Yoshei were continually miserable; Naoki especially has a rare sense of humour. He’s honest, hard working and has a great laugh which he’s not afraid to use on himself and his ‘situation’. We were informed that there’s a local saying, “The nail that stands out most must be hammered down” and Naoki had been that proverbial nail and he’d certainly been knocked down but was by no means knocked out. There was still fight left in him but perhaps less in Yoshei.
This isn’t surprising when you realise what she has to do for a living; one of her three jobs is to ‘talk’ to lonely, rich businessmen and her antidote to this distasteful job is to come home and get wasted on booze and drugs so she doesn’t remember it the next day.
She wasn’t alone in her liberal use of drugs though and one of Naoki’s colleagues at the post office is often so stoned he doesn’t even make it into work.
However, one bright spot in an otherwise rather relentlessly depressing film was when McAllister convinced Naoki to visit Yoshei’s father, something he’d been too embarrassed to do because they were the same age. McAllister had discussed the somewhat intimate details of their sex lives with both men and saw a chance for them to bond over their common need for Viagra.
Initially, it looked like McAllister’s hope that his gift to the father of a pack of Viagra – and his hope that might be a conversation starter for the two men – had gone horribly wrong but once they got talking, it turned out they had a lot in common and liked each other, so at least Naoki wouldn’t feel ashamed to visit with Yoshei’s family anymore… and he got to share the Viagra.
Overall, this was without doubt a pretty depressing film but it was also a rare and welcome insight into a side of this traditionally ‘closeted’ country which even a few years ago would probably not have made or broadcast because it didn’t show Japan in the light it would like to be seen.
I didn’t see the other films in the Japanese season so I can’t comment on them but I have to say, as interesting as this film was, if they’re all that depressing, I’m glad I didn’t see them!