"Japan: A Story of Love and Hate" follows a 58-year-old postal worker living on the poverty line. The film questions how the quality of life could be so miserable in "the world's second-richest country" (even though Japan had the world's second-largest economy at the time of the production, according to the CIA World Factbook, Japan ranks 28th in GDP per capita). After reading several reviews praising the film and seeing that it won two awards each at the Honolulu Film Festival and the Yamagata International Documentary Festival, I decided to hunt down this BBC documentary.
The documentary follows Naoki Sato, who works part-time as a mailman, driving one of those loud, red motorcycles from the post office that would drive past my apartment in swarms at 5:40 every morning.
As a youth in the 1960s, Naoki was a member of the Communist Party and was involved in the massive youth protests at the time. During Japan's "bubble economy," Naoki owned a business that employed 70 workers, lived in a six-bedroom house, and bought a new BMW with cash (apparently he was living up to the communist penchant for hypocrisy).
When Japan's bubble burst in the early '90s, Naoki's business went under, he lost his house, and he got divorced not once, not twice, but thrice. He now lives with/off his 29-year-old girlfriend, Yoshie, in a tiny, windowless, one-room apartment. While Naoki works only part-time, Yoshie works 15 hours a day, including as a hostess at a club. She comes home drunk every night (hostesses are expected to drink with the customers) and ridicules Naoki for his lack of money. Naoki is impotent, and their relationship is cold and dysfunctional. Naoki refuses to meet Yoshie's family, fearing they will reject him since he is the same age as Yoshie's father (the two men eventually bond over their common erectile dysfunction). In one scene Yoshie intentionally breaks Naoki's glasses for the camera. Naoki keeps a collection of about 50 pairs of glasses that Yoshie has broken. They stay together because Naoki has somehow convinced Yoshie that she needs him for protection. He also subjects her to regular guilt-trips, telling her that he couldn't survive without her and she would have to be unbelievably selfish to break up with him (which I think could be considered a form of domestic abuse in some jurisdictions).
I had several problems with this documentary. In addition to the bouncy, headache-inducing, "Bourne Ultimatum"-worthy camera work, "Japan" is not an accurate portrayal of the Japanese or life in Japan. At first I took documentarian Sean McAllister as a reliable expert since he has a British accent. But about five minutes in, I unfortunately realized the film would have a very narrow focus.
The film begins with McAllister jogging through his town in rural Yamagata Prefecture. He has been in Japan for two years (although he says it has felt like five) making a documentary about "what makes Japan tick." Not surprisingly he has since abandoned that poorly realized subject and has decided to focus solely on his friend, Naoki.
McAllister portrays the Japanese as cold, hostile people. While the Japanese are a little more reserved than Westerners, and don't have the large circles of casual acquaintances that is normal in the West, I find most Japanese to be much more welcoming and friendly than they are portrayed in the film. While the Japanese do tend to be xenophobic, their xenophobia is more of a product of ignorance than hostility. I don't think McAllister is a reliable judge of the Japanese character, considering that he apparently doesn't speak any Japanese, despite having lived in Japan for what has felt like five years (he relies on Naoki to translate everyday, conversational Japanese, and even says "Konnichi wa" ["Good afternoon"] when he enters a man's house at night).
Naoki blames his problems on capitalism, and blames England for forcing capitalism onto Japan (even though it was the U.S. that forced open Japan). McAllister apologizes. Apparently Naoki would like to return to the good ol' days of precapitalist Japan, when the country upheld a rigid caste system with no social mobility, where samurai were allowed to test the sharpness of their blades on random peasants' necks with absolutely no legal repercussions. Naoki's critique of capitalism isn't really fair considering that Japan isn't a truly capitalist country. McAllister himself accurately describes Naoki's workplace as "communism pretending to be capitalism." Even though Japanese businessmen are aggressively mercantile, and the Japanese have a McCarthy-like fear of communism, the government unwittingly has a lot of the economic regulations and protections, corruption and authoritarianism of a socialist regime.
Naoki's story is not typical, although McAllister presents it as such. In one scene, McAllister visits Yoshie's family's home. Yoshie's family lives in a small, but decent, house that is typical of the Japanese working class outside of the big cities. In another scene, Naoki and McAllister visit the home of one Mr. Mushroom Man (whose brother committed suicide due to the pressures of Japanese work). Mr. Mushroom Man also lives in a nice house that appears upper middle class. Naoki's lifestyle isn't even typical in the film that purports it as such.
The film does accurately portray the Japanese workplace. As is typical in Japan, Naoki finds it almost impossible to re-enter the workforce in his 50s in anything other than a bottom-rung position. One of Naoki's coworkers has been hospitalized for depression, and another of his coworkers spends his breaks sleeping on the floor because he is so exhausted. Every day begins with radio calisthenics. Naoki's bosses give daily pep talks that inspire more resentment than encouragement, which are typical in Japan's top-down work culture.
Overall, the film suffers from presenting a rare case as typical. One could go to any rich country and find an unpleasant person who made a lot of bad choices and is now living with their mistakes. That doesn't make them typical.