These are hard, uncertain times, especially for young Japanese who have failed to get the right degree from a prestigious university and the right job with a big-name company. If they can find work at all, it is often well below expectations for the rising generation of that onetime economic powerhouse, Japan Inc.
Popular culture has reflected these woes in everything from salaryman comedies, a popular genre here since the 1950s, to dystopian fantasies. The latest in the former line is Teruyuki Yoshida’s “Sarariman Neo Gekijoban (Warai) (Japanese Salaryman Neo).”
Based on an NHK late-night show that gets its guffaws from skit comedy and has become a cult hit, “Salaryman Neo” betrays its TV origins in its hyper, jokey, blackout style, aimed at half-awake viewers with short attention spans. At the same time, it tells a conventional three-act story with a feel-good finish that anyone can understand, fan of the TV show or no. This mix produces a smattering of laughs, but not much comic momentum. (Some of the funniest bits, in fact, come after the main story is concluded.)
But Yoshida, who wrote and directed the film and created the show in 2004, does thoroughly understand his fictional salaryman world, as well as the often unfunny realities on which it is based. This gives the film a certain persuasiveness that it shares with the classic salaryman films of Hisaya Morishige and Hitoshi Ueki. I can see salarymen in the audience ruefully nodding in recognition, when they aren’t laughing.
Instead of the salaryman scapegraces Ueki and Morishige portrayed, however, his hero is Shinjo (Teppei Koike), a baby-faced new hire to industry No. 5 Neo Beer — not his company of choice, but the best he could do. His boss is Nakanishi (Katsuhisa Namase), a sales manager who came up with the company’s last hit product, a beer called Hiyamugi (literally “Cold Wheat”), but is now living a time-serving existence, punctuated by bursts of enthusiasm for his beloved Hanshin Tigers (similar to Neo, perpetual also-rans in the baseball biz).
In his first weeks as a salesman, Shinjo fails to make even one sale, while falling afoul of everyone from the short-fused Nakanishi to the company’s OLs (“office ladies” or female clerks), who snarl at him, gangsterlike, for abusing the copy machine. Feeling like a total failure, Shinjo thinks of quitting, especially after he visits a former college classmate at the razzle-dazzle advertising agency where he works — and is unexpectedly offered a job.
But when Neo’s elderly president (Shiro Ito) is ignominiously defeated in golf by his insufferably arrogant counterpart (Ren Osugi) at industry leader Oguro Beer, he vows to make Neo No. 1, and orders his staff to come up with a winning idea within one week. Surprisingly, Shinjo hits the president’s sweet spot with a concept for a product he calls Sexy Beer. Assigned to head his own development team, he quickly realizes he is in way over his head.
Anyone who has seen one of the many zero-to-hero Japanese films, whether in the salaryman genre or no, can guess what is coming next, from the empty-headed brainstorming sessions to the predictable setbacks on the way to corporate glory. Koike, of the pop duo WaT, and who also starred in the 2009 salaryman comedy “Buraku Gaisha ni Tsutometerundaga, Mo Ore wa Genkai Kamoshirenai (Genkai in a Black Company), doggedly goes through his now-familiar growth-through-pain paces, but comes across as vaguely disengaged. Perhaps he was daydreaming of a role that doesn’t require, yet again, sweet-faced naivete. (If someone offered him a role as a serial killer, I bet he’d jump at it.)
Meanwhile, Namase, a gifted pop-eyed comic in the Ueki mold, has some funny moments as Nakanishi, such as his rapid-fire recital of a long-ago Hanshin baseball broadcast, but he probably would have been funnier as the film’s lead, instead of as its second banana.
Will he ever have a chance? Ueki and Morishige spun out dozens of episodes of their hit series (many of which are thankfully available on DVD), but today’s film industry is more interested in box office home runs than a string of singles. The salaryman comedy, though, seems likely to endure as long as Japan’s blue-suited masses have to put up with impossible bosses and insane hours, while scheming for success — or simply psychic survival — in this material world. In other words, forever.