Friday, August 23, 2013


WARNING: May contains trace of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot's elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.

“Tomoyuki Kaji, 28, is socially inept and thoroughly lacking in self-confidence. "If you die, are you happy then?" he asks on the Internet. An employment agency sends him to work at a factory in Nagano where he meets Tanaka, a co-worker who suffers from narcolepsy. "To the stars, we're all alike," he muses, and the pair become fast friends. This is new territory for Kaji, and he is exhilarated. Out for a drive one night, they meet Yuri, a young girl who has fled the clutches of their co-worker, Okada. Charmed by Yuri, they attempt to protect her. But this isn't as simple as they imagine...” (Festival's Program)

Tomoyuki Kaji is a loner, socially inept and quite a shy guy. He moved from Tokyo to Nagano to work in a car-parts' factory. He receives his orientation at the same time than another new arrival, Okada, who's a bold, arrogant young man. Both go to eat together afterward and at the restaurant they meet Tanaka, another factory worker who's also quite socially inept and suffers from narcolepsy when he's emotional. Okada leaves them to go out with a woman (he's got what Kaji calls “mojo”, i.e. success with women), so Kaji and Tanaka, realizing they are quite similar, become friends. They are both bullied by their co-workers, including Okada, who turns out to be a serial rapist and murderer. When he meets the sister of the speed ice-skater he first killed because he was jealous of his performance, he turns his attention to her, but she escapes and is helped by Kaji and Tanaka who are having an outing in the countryside. However, when Yuri show her preference for Tanaka, Kaji feels betrayed and abandoned. After all, maybe he has more affinity with Okada? Feeling despair, he goes to Akihabara with the intent of running people over with his car and stabbing many with a huge knife...

Why is the movie titled “Botchan” when it has apparently nothing to do with Sōseki's novel of the same name? The only similarity I can see is that Sōseki recount with humour his experience of being a teacher transferred from Tokyo to Matsuyama (on Shikoku island), while the movie tells us about the tribulation of Kaji moving to work in Nagano. The central issue of the novel is about morality, while the movie's theme is more about loneliness and despair (and if it's a comedy, it's a twisted and sick one!).

I feel that there has been a lot of Japanese movies lately about socially inept people, like the so-called hikikomori (withdrawn) and dokuo (socially inept young men). Is it because it's a problem that is particularly on the mind of the Japanese in the recent years? Or is it the expression of the accumulation of collective despair due to the Great Eastern Earthquake and tsunami, years of economic hardship, failure of the japanese dream, and a national psychological profile made of a facade (the need for social conformity creates lots of emotional repression) that is starting to crack at the seams? There's lots of bottled-up emotions in those Japanese! And the tendency to ostracize those who start to buckle under the pressure (avoiding social contacts or sticking out as different and weird) only makes this problem worse, as it alienates them even more. Sometimes pushing them over the edge...

It is very difficult to understand this movie if you don't have basic notions of Japanese society, culture and history. In the end, the movie makes a vague reference to what is known as the “Akihabara massacre” (see reports about this in BBC News, Japan Probe, The Washington Post and The Yomiuri Shimbun). The movie doesn't explain anything and assume the viewers already know about it (clearly indicating that it was not intended for a foreign audience). On June 8, 2008, Tomohiro Katō (25 year-old) drove his two-ton rented truck into the Akihabara crowd, killing three people, then got out of the truck and started stabbing people with a dagger, killing four more and injuring at least ten.

Clearly, the movie is trying to answer the question: “what could have pushed a man to commit such a terrible thing?” There are indeed many similarities between Kaji (in the movie) and Katō, who was an unpopular loner and looser from Aomori, working temporarily in an auto parts factory in Susono City (Shizuoka-ken), often posting messages with his phone on a web site, and who got upset when some co-workers had hidden his work clothes. He reportedly told the police that he was “tired of life”. Of course, the movie is set in a different place and Kaji drove a mini-van, not a two-ton truck. Not much is known on the motivation of the real killer. Although the movie is offering interesting speculations, I seriously doubt that it really happened that way.

So, I understand that the movie is trying to explain the Akihabara massacre, putting the blame of the murderer's social inaptitude on the pressure of society, but many aspects of the movie still doesn't make sense! Like: why, while everybody is being chased by Okada, no one think of calling the police? Maybe the director wanted to parallel the fact that, despite Katō posting his intentions on the internet, nobody tried to stop him. Was anyone listening?

I feel that this movie is more a reenactment documentary than entertainment. It is weird and pointless. With all the angst and screaming, it is quite painful to watch. It attracted little attention (40 viewers in a theatre of about 150 seats, that's an occupancy of 26%) and a couple of people left before the end. It's an interesting subject of reflection, for TV maybe, but not an entertaining movie to watch in a theatre.

Botchan ( ぼっちゃん / Bozo ): Japan, 2013, 130 min.; Dir.: Tatsushi Omori; Scr.: Tatsushi Omori & Hidemori Tsuchiya; Mus.: Yoshihide Ohtomo; Phot.: Atsuhiko Fukaya; Ed.: Ryô Hayano; Art Dir.: Michitoshi Kurokawa; Prod.: Takahiko Kondo, Shinichiro Muraoka; Cast: Shingo Mizusawa, Shohei Uno, Yasushi Fuchikami, Ai Tamura, Shinsuke Suzuki, Masashi Endo, Emiko Imaizumi, Kagetora Miura, Jyo Hyuga. Film screened at the Montreal World Film Festival August 23th, 2013 (Cinema Quartier Latin 12, 13h30) as part of the “Focus on World Cinema” segment.
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Botchan © Apache Inc.

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