Film / Reviews

'Whistleblower': Corporate drama dialed up to 11

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japan is justly praised for its law-abiding citizenry. Drop your wallet on the street here and a kind local is likely to come running after you to return it. On the corporate level, though, scandal follows scandal. One of the most common sights on Japanese news shows is company bigwigs bowing in apology for some misdeed.

Based on a 2012 novel by Jun Ikeido, Katsuo Fukuzawa’s “Whistleblower” is the rare Japanese film to take corporate malfeasance as its theme. It is not, however, a Japanese reply to “The Insider,” the 1999 film starring Russell Crowe as a beleaguered whistleblower working in the tobacco industry. In contrast to the true-story American film, “Whistleblower” is both total fiction and highly stylized, like a kabuki play in suits and ties. And toward the end a character directly addresses the audience with a message-y speech, a la Charlie Chaplin at the conclusion of “The Great Dictator” (1940).

The film also delivers takes on everything from petty backbiting to the kind of dark conniving familiar from many corporate dramas. And the story turns out to be as black-and-white as a morality play, though the main characters begin it by dissembling their true motives and feelings, as do many of their real-life counterparts. I imagine salarymen seeing the film and nodding knowingly.

Whistleblower (Nanatsu no Kaigi)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens Now Showing

It centers on two rival sales teams for Tokyo Kenden, a subsidiary of the giant Xenox Corp. At a meeting that unfolds with the rigid protocol and shouted commands of a military review, the department head, Kitagawa (an over-the-top Teruyuki Kagawa), rages at the hapless Harashima (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), whose team has again failed to make its quota for appliance sales, while smiling at the clean-jawed Sakado (Ainosuke Kataoka), whose team has hit its target 35 months in a row.

But Sakado has a thorn in his side: His lazy, sneering second-in-command Yasumi (Mansai Nomura), aka Hakkaku, who defies unwritten rules by leaving work at the scheduled time and taking all of his paid leave. Then there is Hamamoto (Aki Asakura), a sweet, mildly pixilated OL (office lady) who starts making and selling donuts to boost corporate morale, but finds that a thief is stealing her popular products when her back is turned.

The tone here is blackly comic, if permeated with a serious tension. The story soon takes a more suspenseful turn with Hakkaku’s secret visit to a small workshop that used to make screws for Tokyo Kenden, but lost out to a cheaper, larger rival two years ago. When Hakkaku gives the suspicious boss a new order, in defiance of Sakado who dumped the workshop, Kitagawa inexplicably lets it slide. There are, we realize, layers within layers to this story. At its heart is a cover-up that, if revealed, would blow the company sky high.

Playing Hakkaku, Nomura references kyōgen — the traditional theatrical art that serves as comic relief to noh drama. Born into a kyōgen family, Nomura has ascended to the top of the that genre’s hierarchy, while acting in films and TV dramas.

In “Whistleblower” he may be mugging for laughs, but he is also creating an archetype quintessentially Japanese and universally human. Hakkaku is to the average salaryman what Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet was to the average Danish prince. That is, a larger-than-life hero, though his concern with the rotten state of his company is the stuff of the daily headlines.

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