Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Release date: out now
This is a film for our times, telling the story of a salaryman - the administration director of a healthcare equipment company - in his forties (Ryuhei Sasaki, played by Teruyuki Kagawa), who loses his job when the administrative functions of the company are outsourced to China.
The film opens with this event, but it is clear from early on that there is already a lot of tension at home in the suburbs. His wife (played with little dialogue but great intensity by Kyoko Koizumi) spends her time doing housework and cooking and caring for their two sons. The elder, Takashi, appears in the house rarely, often coming home in the morning after his father, who refers to him as "a mess", has left. The younger son, Kenji (an extraordinary performance by 13 year old Kai Inowaki), is at school and longs to take piano lessons, which his father refuses to allow. There seems to be little trust and affection in the house and Sasaki's apparent need to impose his will on the rest of the family only increases as his authority and status in the world outside crumble to nothing.
Afraid to tell his wife he is unemployed, Sasaki sets out each day in his suit and tie, but spends his days queuing in the job centre and the free soup kitchen, or sitting in the library. It soon becomes apparent that he is far from alone in his deception: the queues of mainly shabbily dressed jobless workers are peppered with men in suits. One, a former friend from high school, has programmed his mobile to ring five times an hour so that he can pretend to have important business conversations about deals and contracts.
Another poignant moment comes when Sasaki takes a job cleaning in a shopping mall, and, changing back into his suit in the toilets that he has been cleaning on his hands and knees, he sees his supervisor also leaving in a suit.
The film is very cleverly directed by Kurosawa, famous for his psychological horror movies. He creates a feeling of claustrophobia and mounting tension, and somehow shows us the familiar becoming strange - for example, when Sasaki looks at the people heading for the train to go to work as he has done on countless mornings, but with a totally different perspective. He is no longer really part of it.
The colours are mostly drab and drained: yellow, dusty white, grey, brown. Practically every shot is framed by some kind of barrier: a set of shelves, banisters, a fence, a gate, a door, telegraph wires; things are hidden, obscured. The camera rarely pulls back to show sky or open space, and when it does so in a few scenes - on a bridge, by the sea, and at the end - it signifies at least partial liberation.
The problem with a film which is essentially about the alienation and despair of living under capitalism is that, short of a revolution, the characters are going to have to go on living with it, but that would make for a pretty boring movie unless something happens. In this case a lot of stuff happens, as the unstable situation explodes into a series of violent events, which produce a kind of resolution.
The director has said he wanted to provide a glimmer of hope, but the way he does it will strike many people as unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, it is a film which grips the viewer from beginning to end, and paints a bleak picture of late capitalism and its impact on human relationships.