Films about Japanese organization men, from bureaucrats to salarymen, have long broadly divided into two categories — the serious ones, that portray work life as a sort of holy war, fought by loyal, self-sacrificing blue-suited soldiers, and the comic, whose characters range from pompous idiots to lovable slackers.
In the current decade, however, more films, especially by younger directors, have focused on the growing number of Japanese on the fringes of the work force or out of it altogether, such as the eighth-year college student hero of Satoshi Miki’s road comedy “Ten Ten” (“Adrift in Tokyo,” 2008) or the unemployed father in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s family drama “Tokyo Sonata” (2008).
In his observant, if frantic, comedy “Black Gaisha ni Tsutometerundaga mo Ore wa Genkai Kamo Shirenai” (“A Man on the Verge at a Black Company”) — try saying that in one breath — Yuichi Sato descends into the underworld of “black companies,” which provide jobs to the otherwise unemployable, but then so did the galleys of ancient Rome.
Often bottom-of-the-barrel subcontractors for bigger, better established firms, these companies pay wretched salaries, offer little or no job security and expect their employees to devote nearly all their waking hours to their labors. Who would work for such slave drivers? The armies of young people who didn’t jump through the right educational hoops or stayed in their rooms for a few years after high school, that’s who.
The hero, Masao (Teppei Koike), falls into the latter category, called NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Bullied in high school, he retreated to the safety of his computer and taught himself programming, but when he finally went job hunting, well into his 20s, his resume was a blank. After being turned down by dozens of companies or simply laughed out of the room, he finds sympathy and, miraculously, a job offer from the kindly president (Leo Morimoto) of a small IT company.
His boss (Hiroshi Shinagawa), however, is a loud, abusive petty despot who “trains” Masao by tossing him a pile of work and telling him to figure it out himself. Among his coworkers is an anime otaku (obsessive animation fan), played by Tetsuhiro Ikeda, who toadies to the boss and slacks off whenever possible, a browbeaten nerd (Yasushi Nakamura) who lives at his desk, sleeping under it at night, and a harridan of an accountant/programmer (Masako Chiba) who sneeringly rejects all expense requests — and knows where all the corporate bodies are buried. The arrival of Miss Nakanishi (Maiko), a cute, leggy, air-headed temp, stirs male libidos, Masao’s included, but does little to change the wretched status quo. Masao’s only ally in this nest of vipers is Fujita (Seiichi Tanabe), who is friendly, understanding and competent. That is, he is obviously destined for better things, so why did he settle for a company that is a last resort of losers and misfits?
That question gnaws at Masao, but his job, with its successions of “death march” projects on impossible deadlines, seems likely to kill him before he learns the answer.
The TV-trained Sato, whose previous film was the misbegotten salaryman comedy “Shugo Tenshi” (“Guardian Angel”), stages many of the film’s comic scenes like goofy skits for a late-night variety show, but he also knows the world of his “black company” inside and out. It is as though Ricky Gervais had developed “The Office” — the TV comedy masterpiece that nailed British office culture with sly, deadly precision — with help from Jim Carrey in his “Dumb and Dumber” phase.
As Masao, Koike is just wimpy enough in his early scenes, while giving signs of intestinal fortitude. Michael J. Fox is one point of reference, though Koike lacks Fox’s cockiness, opting instead for the puppy-dog appeal that has served him so well as half of the pop duo WaT.
Since this is a Japanese zero-to-hero film, Masao has to plug away, instead of telling his boss to shove the job, even after finding himself on the “verge” of the breakdown mentioned in the title. Not true to life you say? Ever notice all the rundown office buildings in Tokyo with the lights blazing away and the faces of the drones fixed on PCs at 9, 10, 11 o’ clock in the evening and later? It’s enough to make you get down on your knees and thank God you’re an English teacher.