‘Tokyo Nanmin (Refugee in Tokyo)’

Homelessness can happen to any city dweller


It can be easy to fall through the cracks of many societies, even one like Japan’s that seems to have a wide safety net, beginning with Mom and Dad.

I found out just how easy when I lived on the roof of a student coop for three months in Los Angeles. I had a beater of a car as well as enough food and gas money to scrape by until, with only a single digit left in my bank account, I found a job at a Christmas-tree lot. But when my elderly Jewish boss told me I wouldn’t get paid until the end of the season, a month hence, I felt the walls closing in.

I begged for an advance and, thankfully, got it. Sleep rough I could do; live on coop garbage I could not. I sold trees as though my life depended on it and made enough to not only pay back my benefactor eight-fold, but leave the roof for a one-room apartment, homeless no more.

Osamu Tokieda (Aoi Nakamura), the hero of Kiyoshi Sasabe’s “Tokyo Nanmin (Refugee in Tokyo),” quickly finds himself in a similar desperate situation. An indifferent student at a private college in Tokyo, he is expelled for nonpayment of tuition fees. Then his landlord evicts him from his apartment for nonpayment of rent. Dad, who had been supporting him, disappears under a cloud of debt, while his beloved mom is no longer among the living. Soon he finds himself one of the many “Tokyo refugees” who sleep in Internet cafes and eke out a bare living with temporary and part-time work.

Tokyo Nanmin (Refugee in Tokyo)
Director Kiyoshi Sasabe
Run Time 130 minutes
Language Japanese

Based on a novel by Tetsuzo Fukuzawa, “Refugee in Tokyo” is unlike the many local films with goofy slacker heroes and a black comic tone. Instead it is a straight-ahead drama that tries to lift the lid on hidden corners of Japanese society, from elderly homeless guys sleeping in parks to the denizens of Tokyo’s mizusho ̄bai (“water world,” or sex industry) of love-for-sale clubs, cabarets and massage parlors.

The usual adjective for the film’s story about a plunge to the lower depths is “Dickensian,” but Osamu is no hapless, innocent Oliver Twist or David Copperfield. Instead, he is an unformed, irresponsible kid who only knows how to slide by, not make do. At first he inspires more irritation than sympathy. Why, the grumpy old man in me asked, doesn’t this guy show more gumption and initiative?

But as played by the doe-eyed Nakamura, he also projects the sort of vulnerability and decency that makes him seem both human and redeemable. The film’s central question is not whether he can learn and grow, but whether he can survive the unforgiving school of the streets.

This school is portrayed with an unvarnished realism both sociological and psychological, as when Osamu’s joy at finding an easy gig as a medical-study subject gives way to the queasy realization that he is little more than a guinea pig in a hospital gown. Or when a fellow “refugee” who gives him tips on how to hand out free tissue packs turns out to be a mad bomber in training. And he is not the usual figure-of-fun mad bomber, but another of the many lost souls on the streets, here or anywhere.

The story, however, centers on Osamu’s descent into mizusho ̄bai hell, beginning with an invitation from a leggy stranger (Mizuki Yamamoto) to drink with her at a host club. Stuck with a stupendous bill, he pleads with club’s pitiless manager (Nobuaki Kaneko) to let him work it off — and is hired as a host.

As Osamu learns his new trade under a hardened club senior (Sho Aoyagi) and falls into an uneasy relationship with an emotionally needy older woman (Chihiro Otsuka), the film seems to depart from its down-and-out theme with contrived trapped-in-the-underworld drama.

Why, I wondered, doesn’t Osamu simply make tracks? First, he sees he can make big money if he can stifle his moral qualms. Second and more importantly, he doesn’t want to rejoin the ranks of the homeless, who still look scary and alien to him. And yet they and others like them on society’s margins hold the key to his ultimate salvation.

I don’t know that my own brush with homelessness saved me, but it did make me aware of how fragile so-called normality can be. It also taught me certain lessons, mostly the hard way. Seeing Osamu learn similar ones, I couldn’t be too critical of his bad decisions. And every time I see a blue-tarp shelter under a bridge or on a riverbank, I still wonder a bit about its inhabitant — and what it might be like to join him.

Fun fact: In prepping for the film, Sasabe lived alone in a tiny one-room apartment in Shinjuku. “It was so cold there,” he later reminisced. “It put me in the mood of a ‘Tokyo refugee.’ “