Production Company: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Toei
Release: 18 September 1999
Length: 114 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Harada Masato
Based on the novel by: Takasugi Ryo
Photography: Sakamoto Yoshitaka
Producers: Hara Masato, Sakagami Jun
Kitano Hiroshi: Yakusho Koji
Sasaki Hideaki: Nakadai Tatsuya
Kitano Kyoko: Fubuki Jun
Katayama Akio: Shiina Kippei
Wada: Wakamura Mayumi
Hisayama Takashi: Sato Kei
Nakayama Kohei: Nezu Jinpachi
Curse of the Salaryman
Salaryman movies have been one of the staples of Japanese film fare ever since these white-collar employees became the mythical center of both the economy and society of Japan. Yet these films have rarely been the kind of unabashed celebration of their heroes that one finds in, say, the treatment of the cowboy in many U.S. Westerns. The image of the salary man is just too bland and unrewarding.
Most of the salaryman movies have in fact been comedies, as if the only way company life can be made interesting is through humor, venting frustration against a corporate hierarchy that swallows up the individual and prevents change. From the Crazy Cats’ “Irresponsible” (“Musekinin”) series to the Toho “Company President” (“Shacho”) films, most have poked fun at the bosses and their rules, but, with the rare exception of the delightfully poisonous early “Irresponsible” movies, rarely to the extent of criticizing the institution all together. Reassuring the down-hearted and lowly salaryman viewer seems to be their main goal.
For better or for worse, that is also true of Harada Masato’s salaryman epic, Jubaku, which professes to aim to exorcise the curse (“jubaku”) of corruption that has hampered corporate Japan. But while well-made, the film ends up just trying to hearten us with images of people who have the good of the company and Japan at heart.
The story is something out of today’s newspapers. The arrest of a sokaiya (gangsters who demand enormous sums from companies in exchange for “peace” at stockholders’ meetings) exposes the fact that a major financial institution, the Asahi Central Bank, has been been funneling money to the yakuza for years. Company higher-ups try to downplay the incident, but a vigorous press and prosecution prompt a raid of the bank and the first of several arrests.
Feeling that this was not the kind of bank they were taught to support, four middle-level salarymen, led by Kitano Hiroshi (Yakusho Koji), decide to take action and convince the board to appoint a reformer as the new president and, in order to restore public confidence, create an internal investigative team to get to the bottom of the illegal payments.
Their efforts, however, are thwarted both from within, by the former bank chairman, Sasaki Hideakai (Nakadai Tatsuya) - who happens to be Kitano’s father-in-law - and without, by the yakuza who have been cut off by the bank’s reforms. Suicides and mob hits result, but a revelation of the truth and a dramatic stockholder’s meeting ultimately spell victory for the cause of good.
Jubaku has an epic feel to it, and not only because of the large cast. There is a theatrical sense to the narrative, with the stage being Hibiya Park, the public space around which the film’s three main actors–the bank, the press, and the prosecutors–have their offices and in which they often meet. Like a good epic, it is also accompanied by music, both on the soundtrack and with the musicians who always seem to be playing in the park.
The epic feel is intentional on Harada’s part because the film’s primary model is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Sasaki and those in the upper echelons of the bank are emperor-like figures in a state of degeneracy, patterning themselves off of Rome, as Harada makes clear in the set design, with baroque offices lined with red marble and a company statue that is none other than the wolf suckling the twins, Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome.
This strategy is both effective and meaningful, but as is the problem with much of Harada’s work, it can be a bit too obvious. The bank elites are visually distinguished by decor, a predominant use of reds, and rather uncomfortable wide-angle shots. Kitano and his associates are, by contrast, shot in normal spaces, with normal lenses, and are surrounded by greener, more earthy colors. Harada, a director with Hollywood experience, makes it clear who we are to side with, almost to the point that we say, “All right, we get it already!”
This easy-to-understand structure also tends to make the movie’s moral universe simple. Given the ease to which the bosses - who were doing the illegal deals to begin with - cooperate with Kitano’s investigation, the only ones who end up looking immoral in this moral tale are Sasaki and the yakuza. Company employees, it seems, are essentially good people who have just been cursed. But without a consideration of how institutions overwhelm individuals, or how salaryman culture itself may be to blame, the curse seems a bit too hollow and easy to break.
With Kamikaze Taxi (1995) and Bounce koGALS (1997) under his belt, Harada is too good a director and the 1990s too complex a world for this to be Mr. Smith Goes to Hibiya. There are clouds hovering around the edges of the film. In fact, the pleasure of watching Harada’s work is often in those moments of complex eccentricity like in the use of the pictures of Mao on the walls of the investigative team’s office. Unlike Tsukamoto Shinya’s Gemini, however, another film with a clear design strategy, those excessive moments don’t take over the center of the film. And with a movie designed, as the press information says, to “give a rallying cry to all salarymen and OLs,” they illustrate a story that does not get to the center of corporate Japan’s real curse.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 23 September 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow