The existence of so-called black companies that exploit their employees is hardly news here. But the December 2015 suicide of a young female employee of Dentsu — Japan’s largest ad agency — focused renewed attention on the work practices that led to her death and are still all too common.
Based on a prize-winning novel by Emi Kitagawa, Izuru Narushima’s “To Each His Own” (“Chotto Ima Kara Shigoto Yamete Kuru”) is a serious treatment of this theme that flirts with fantasy in its first half but shades to heart-warming melodrama in its second. Save for the scenes of the beleaguered salesman hero (Asuka Kudo) being chewed out by his short-fused boss (Kotaro Yoshida), the story teeters on the edge of impossibility before finally descending into just-so fiction whose solution for karōshi (death by overwork) is the real-life equivalent of winning the lottery — that is, hardly attainable for the majority who have to earn a living in this country rather than the film’s idea of paradise.
The salesman is Takashi Aoyama, a new hire who recruits and services clients for a printing company. His boss is a door-slamming, wastebasket-booting terror who not only rips into Aoyama for the smallest error, but also forces him to do long hours of “voluntary” (unpaid) overtime. Finally deciding that life is not worth living, Aoyama is about to fall into the path of a speeding train when he is rescued by a tall, lanky guy in a Hawaiian shirt. Calling himself Yamamoto (Sota Fukushi), he claims to be Aoyama’s long-lost classmate.
A free-spirited type who cheerfully rattles away in Osaka dialect, Yamamoto wants to be Aoyama’s helper and pal, not — as the latter briefly fears — his gay lover. He also gives Aoyama useful fashion and sales advice, based on his own now-past salaryman days. The gray cloud over our hero begins to dissipate.
Igarashi (Haru Kuroki), a cool beauty who is the company’s sales star, compliments Aoyama on his brighter look and attitude, but romance is the furthest thing from his mind, especially after a seemingly careless error nearly loses the company an important client. The boss goes ballistic — and Aoyama again descends into corporate hell.
The film’s central mystery is not how Aoyama hangs onto his job (one likely reason: the boss enjoys torturing him) but Yamamoto’s true identity. Aoyama, who is not stupid, soon uncovers the falsity of the “classmate” claim, but Yamamoto’s uncanny knack for turning up at the right moment, time after time, makes Aoyama suspect that he is a ghost — or an angel. Igarashi, we soon see, is hiding secrets as well, though Aoyama innocently and somewhat incredibly views her as his only office ally. (His other co-workers are glued silently to their desks.)
As the mysterious Yamamoto, Fukushi plays down his ikemen (handsome guy) looks while playing up his character’s effervescent charm — and essential seriousness. This sort of complexity is absent in Kudo’s straight-arrow Aoyama, though his sincerity and passivity are also often found in his real-life counterparts. Otherwise, black companies would find it harder to recruit and retain wage slaves.
Fortunately, Aoyama finds a savvy, tireless savior in Yamamoto. My own role model in this regard is late country music star Johnny Paycheck, whose biggest hit was “Take This Job and Shove It.” Has there ever been a Japanese cover version?