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Going into Toshio Lee’s “Struggling Man,” whose title hero is a stressed supermarket worker, I imagined something in the line of “Supermarket Woman,” Juzo Itami’s 1996 comedy that knowingly dissects the ins and outs of the retail game. I should have known better. Lee, a veteran maker of commercial comedies including 2018’s “When I Get Home, My Wife Always Pretends to Be Dead,” may have taken a more serious, if sentimental, turn with his new film, but he once again delivers his usual brand of high volume, broad strokes humor. Itami-esque smart black comedy is not in Lee’s creative DNA.

That doesn’t mean he and scriptwriter Fumi Tsubota have brushed over the nuts and bolts of their protagonist’s business in adapting comedian Shiro Tsubuyaki’s novel of the same Japanese title for the screen. After 25 years of inching up the promotion ladder to assistant manager at Umeya Supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) knows how to turn a potential disaster — a subordinate’s botched order for 5,000 packages of sōmen noodles — into a triumph of canny marketing, with limited-time sales that makes products fly off shelves.

The store’s portly, good-natured manager calls him the store’s “pillar,” but when the manager suddenly dies of a stroke, Haruo isn’t promoted to take his place. Instead, the position goes to a nerdy accountant dispatched from headquarters who knows nothing about selling groceries beyond crunching numbers. That, I thought, sounds depressingly real enough.

Struggling Man (Watashi wa Ittai Nanito Tatakatteiru no Ka)
Rating
Run Time 114 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 17

However, rather than focusing on Haruo’s struggle for recognition and success, the story shifts to his personal woes. As a loving husband to the understanding Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) and indulgent father to three children, Haruo seems to enjoy a wonderful family life that compensates for his professional frustrations. But when his eldest, Koume (Yui Okada), suddenly announces her engagement to a towering hunk (Shuhei Nogae, known by his stage name Sway), Haruo senses his fatherly dignity being threatened. To make matters worse, he feels the foundations of his marriage shake when an envelope from Ritsuko’s ex-boyfriend arrives, especially since she does not immediately share its contents.

Haruo narrates his insecurities and anxieties in an endless inner monologue that is meant to be amusing but is mainly annoying, while almost everyone else plays strenuously to stereotypes — a style familiar from Lee’s previous work, though hardly limited to him.

Although he is framed as an average middle-aged company man and paterfamilias, Haruo is revealed to be a sort of secular saint, if one prone to self-defeating doubts. He may eat a lonely bowl of curry rice every night at a diner run by an unsmiling old woman (which raises the question of how he finds room for Ritsuko’s home cooking), but this odd ritual is offset by his genuine concern for others, which at times borders on self-sacrificing masochism. Despite being passed over for the promotion, his first thought is to make the new manager, whom the other store employees hate on sight, somehow succeed.

Yasuda, a past Lee collaborator who is often cast as a bumbling yet loveable underdog, strives to make Haruo more than a collection of cliches, but the sappiness of the story and Haruo’s lack of anything resembling a spine finally defeat him.

Itami’s heroines, regularly played by wife Nobuko Miyamoto, could drill through men’s false fronts and lies with contemptuous ease, her spunky housewife who rescues a failing store in “Supermarket Woman” being Exhibit A. Watching “Struggling Man,” I missed her more than ever.

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