Friday, May 15, 2009

NIPPON CONNECTION '09 REVIEW: A Normal Life, Please!

フツーの仕事がしたい (Futsu no shigoto ga shitai)

Released: 2008

Tokachi Tsuchiya

Nobukazu Kaikura

Running time: 70 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

If you ever thought your job was bad try to imagine driving a cement truck 552 hours in a month, barely making it home for any real length of time and catching quick naps in the cab of your truck when you can. Now if you figure that there are about 730 hours in a month that would leave you with only 5.7 hours a day to eat, shower and sleep. It's an insane schedule, but it's one that 37-year-old Nobukazu Kaikura kept up for a hellish period during 2006. Kaikura drives for Toutou Transport, a small independent 18 truck fleet that hauls cement for the large Tokyo-based corporation Fucox to construction sites throughout Japan. Not collecting a set salary, but instead being paid per load Kaikura and his fellow truckers nearly worked themselves to death for, in Kaikura's case, ¥300,000 (or roughly $3,700 CAD) per month. From that they have to pay for all fuel and maintenance expenses on their vehicle, plus none of Toutou's drivers received any sick days or medical insurance. That was the main reason behind the death of one driver who in 2005 crashed his truck in Kanagawa after he was forced to go on the road while suffering from a high fever. Not only did the driver of the truck die, but so did the driver of another vehicle involved in the accident.

What do you do when you're caught up in a situation like this? In Kaikura's case he sought protection from the Rentai Union, one of the largest unions representing construction and transport workers in Japan. With the help of Rentai representatives Kaikura began to petition Toutou Transport to start to honour government prescribed work and safety regulations, but instead of things getting better for Kaikura they got worse, much worse, and that's the point where Tokachi Tsuchiya came into the story. Tsuchiya, who has been a freelance filmmaker for the past 6 years, was asked to come in and film the arbitration between Kaikura and his employers. To call what went on an arbitration is a bit like calling The Spanish Inquisition a routine interview. With Tsuchiya's camera rolling the owners of Toutou Transport brought in their own arbitraitor, Mitsuo Kudo, who with his nylon jump suits, tinted glasses and John Gotti hairstyle looks like he was brought in from yakuza central casting. Not only did Kudo threaten Kaikura at this meeting, but he and his thugs continued to do so, showing up at Kaikura's home and even his mother's funeral to try and scare him away from the idea of joining a union. For Tsuchiya the titanic battle that was about to take place between everyman Kaikura and the world of unethical big business was just too much to pass up, so with video camera in hand he followed Kaikura through the next year and a half of meetings, strikes, more arbitrations, backroom dealing and even a brush with an incurable disease. The end result of this was Tsuchiya's 2008 documentary 'A Normal Life, Please!"

Corporate executives that prize high profits over worker safety and satisfaction? The yakuza involved in the Japanese construction industry? The high cost of living in Japan? In terms of content there's not a lot that Tsuchiya is telling us in his documentary that people don't know or hadn't suspected already. If Tsuchiya had placed himself more front and center in this tale of injustice instead of just providing the standard voiceover narration for "A Normal Life, Please!" his film would have fallen neatly into the agit-prop Michael Moore-esque documentaries that have been so popular worldwide in the past few years. What sets Tsuchiya's film apart though is that the scale of the human drama on display is so confounding, so angering, and the pressure that is put to bear on the decidedly meek Kaikura is so intense that we in the audience can't look away. Michael Moore may capture certain moments like this in his documentaries, but nothing ever this sustained. The audience that I saw "A Normal Life, Please!" with in Frankfurt involuntarily chuckled at certain points in the film, not because anything was funny, or Tsuchiya's filmmaking was inept, but because it was hard to believe just how absurd and complex Kaikura's simple desire to have a normal job became.

"A Normal Life, Please!", like the work of so many of Japan's new generation of filmmakers, shows us Japan not as we Westerners want to see it, and definitely not in the way that most Japanese want to see it, but the way it actually is: unvarnished, unsweetened and without any of the cherry blossom and green tea gentility. If you can get past the propagandizing of how "there's strength in a union" that is driven home over and over at the film's end "A Normal Life, Please!" will reward you with a glimpse of a truly compelling and universal story.

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