Friday, January 22, 2010

The salaryman who nearly unseated samurai Sanjuro from the Japanese box office

by Chris MaGee

From Kon Ichikawa's 1957 farce "The Full-Up Train" to Takashi Miike's 1999 adaptation of Hiroshi Motomiya's manga "White Collar Worker Kintaro" the Japanese salaryman has been a representative image in the world of popular Japanese cinema, but the salaryman's peak in screen popularity occurred in the early to mid-60's when a devil-may-care salaryman nearly toppled Akira Kurosawa's "Sanjuro" from the top of the box office heap.

Directed by Kengo Furusawa 1962's "Nippon Musekinin jidai (Irresponsible Era of Japan)" gently satirized the image of the workaholic office drone that had begun to people companies across Japan during its mid-20th century "economic miracle". The film centered around Hitoshi Taira (played by Hitoshi Ueki, member of the 50's/60's comedy jazz band The Crazy Cats), a mischievous white-collar employee of a Tokyo liquor company who spends more time showing up late for work weaseling his way out his duties, and romancing the office ladies than actually keeping his nose to the proverbial grindstone. Ueki's character became a hero to tired salarymen in Japan, men who would never dream of behaving like Taira, but who could live and laugh vicariously through his hijinks. It was these real-life salarymen who made "Nippon Musekinin jidai" a bonafide hit, making it the second biggest box office earner in 1962 in Japan, right behind Toshiro Mifune's swaggering samurai "Sanjuro".

You wouldn't be far off if you saw some parallels to another lovable lay-about in Japanese film. Besides the musical numbers sprinkled through the film you could almost consider Taira as an upscale version of Shochiku's Tora-san, in fact Toho followed up "Nippon Musekinin jidai" with five sequels over the next four years, but in the end Hitoshi Taira didn't capture the popular Japanese imagination the way Tora-san did.

Still not well known in North America you can learn more about "Nippon Musekinin jidai" and Hitoshi Taira by reading the entry on the film in Mark Schilling's 1997 book "Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture" published by Weatherhill Press. For now check out the original theatrical trailer for the film below.

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