Foreign Policy Blogs

Review: ‘Japan: A Story of Love and Hate’

Naoki Sato and Sean McAllister, subject and director (respectively) of the BBC documentary 'Japan: A Story of Love and Hate.' (IMDb Photo)

While researching my last post about the record-high poverty rate in Japan, I came across a title for a 2008 BBC documentary entitled Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. The film follows a 58-year-old postal worker living on the poverty line. The film asks 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, 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 watch it last night.

The film follows Naoki Sato, who works part-time as a mailman, driving one of those loud, red motorcycles from the post office that go 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 in 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: A Story of Love and Hate is not an accurate portrayal of Japanese people or life in Japan. At first I figured documentarian Sean McAllister was a reliable expert since he talks with a British accent. But about five minutes into the film, I realized it 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.” He has since abandoned that subject (not surprising, since it wasn’t very well defined), 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-old days of pre-capitalist 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 his lifestyle is typical.

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 (which McAllister fails to point out began during World War II when the government told the public that doing the calisthenics daily would somehow stave off hunger pangs). 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. If McAllister had interviewed a hundred people like Naoki, the film could be given more credence. 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.

 
  • Rachel

    I spent a total of 2 and a half years in Japan and I was moved and enlightened by this documentary. It was not a perfect picture of the salary man culture, of course. It was the story of one desperate couple. I saw people like that; I was constantly being surprised and fascinated by the structure and heavy requirements of this traditional culture. I really want to know what happened to the couple after the 2008 documentary. I wish someone would follow up on it for television.

    • sean mcallister

      hi rachel, thanks for your comments, naoki and yoshie are struggling on, as you rightly point out they represent many struggling people in japan that you may have passed. i in know way meant then to be typical as dustin dye’s review suggests, it was as you said a ‘film about a struggling couple’ – it was because of this that so many people connect with them. dustin failed to see the many intimate scenes they allowed film that go against japanese culture, anyway it wasn’t a film for you him but was for you and many others thankfully. both naoki and yoshie enjoyed attending many festivals with the after also giving them a boost in life. i’m not very good at follow up though sadly.

  • Bryan Guzman

    i’ve watched it yesterday, it might not capture the whole thing, but as you said, the main subject of the documentary made a lot of bad choices, in a society like japan, making a lot of bad choices, makes it all worse and razes any chance for one to recover unlike in other societies, like welfare support in european countries, familial support in other asian socities, and absence of excessive shame for sticking out from the crowd. conformity is a characteristic of japanese culture, one you stick out, he is ostracized and may lose the support for recovery.

  • Ufug Mammadova

    Total nonsense, your critic reminded me the Soviet propaganda. It’s just a documentary about one person.

Author

Dustin Dye
Dustin Dye

Dustin Dye is the author of the YAKUZA DYNASTY series, available through the Amazon Kindle.

He lived in Okayama, Japan, where he taught English at a junior high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for three years. He is a graduate from the University of Kansas, where he received a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

His interest in Japan began in elementary school after seeing Godzilla fight Ghidorah, the three-headed monster. But it wasn't until he discovered Akira Kurosawa's films through their spaghetti Western remakes that he truly became fascinated in the people and culture of Japan.

He lives in Kansas with his wife, daughter and guinea pig.

Visit him online at www.dustindye.net.
E-mail him: dustinkdye@ymail.com

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