Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate (reviews)

© Tue Steen Müller / Filmkommentaren.dk / March 12, 2012

Naoki and YoshiThe British filmmaker Sean McAllister took part in the East European Platform event in Prague organised by the Institute of Documentary Film. He ran a masterclass, where he showed clips from his many films shot in troubled areas (Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Yemen, where his last film “The Reluctant Revolutionary” was shot, it had its premiere at the Berlinale 2012). For a night screening McAllister had chosen to show his 2008 work from Japan, “Japan: A Story of Love and Hate”, a film shot in a non-war-non-conflict area, and a film that he appreciated a lot himself.

As did I, for good reasons, as the film is an excellent conveyed story from a Japan that we know so little about, a film that simply takes us to meet Japanese people, who are open-minded when it comes to their private life, and a film that shows McAllister’s unique talent for getting close to people, have their trust and treat them with respect. The director is involved, his voice is heard, he arranges and pushes the story, and he sets an atmosphere of serious fun. It is a film made with and not about.

It works thanks to Naoki, his 56 year old English speaking protagonist, divorced several times, once a businessman on top of the world and now a postman with a tiny salary. His luck is that Yoshie, 29, takes care of him, she has several jobs including a night one, where she leaves home to entertain men at bars. They live in a very small flat and this is where most of the film takes place. Where most of the conversations between McAllister and Naoki take place as well, and they are pretty intimate. Naoki has a kind of fatalistic approach to his situation, laughs at it and defines it to be all because of capitalism pointing at the director with a laugh – “that you Westerners brought to us”.

I have never seen a film like that from Japan, about poverty and family trouble and love life crisis. You are never bored, on the contrary, you are in the film from start to end, and – gosh – I have never seen a filmmaker bring a viagra pill as a gift to a character, as does McAllister does on his second vsit to the father of Yoshie, who has the same age and problem as Naoki, who with this visit, after several years of being with his daughter, sees her father for the first time.

See the original review on Filmkommentaren.dk website

© John Preston / The Telegraph / April 03, 2009

There are, of course, many ways to attract viewers’ attention in television documentaries. Of these, weepingly begging for sympathy has rather fallen out of vogue. But Sean McAllister, I suspect, is on a mission to change that.

Japan: a Story of Love and Hate (Monday, BBC Four) began with a shot of someone’s feet, wearing trainers. Jerkily, and none too speedily, the feet jogged through a barren concrete landscape. Then came a semi-coherent voice muttering disconsolately about being depressed and drinking too much.

Both the feet and the voice turned out to belong to Sean McAllister, who had originally gone to Japan to make a film about what makes ‘the country tick’. For some reason, possibly to do with the drinking and the depression, this had failed to materialise. Now, McAllister had ‘one last chance’ to make a film – any film – which illuminated a previously shaded area of Japanese life.

In a small rural town, he met a 56-year-old man called Naoki. Once, Naoki had been wealthy – he ran a business employing 70 staff. But he’d lost all his money in Japan’s 1992 economic crash. Now he lived with his 29-year-old girlfriend, Yoshie, in a tiny, windowless room and worked for the Post Office earning the equivalent of £3.50 an hour.

Everything in Naoki’s life – job, finances, relationship – was teetering on the brink of disaster. Especially his relationship. ‘She hates me,’ he said of Yoshie, who lay sprawled on the bed two feet away and made no move to quibble with this. The two of them were members of Japan’s new ‘working poor’. Although they had jobs, they couldn’t afford to live on their combined salaries.

Periodically, McAllister would offer sharp yet characteristically doleful observations of his own: ‘I couldn’t help noticing there was no physical contact between them,’ he said at one point. ‘No, no,’ cried Naoki with terrible mordant glee. ‘I have no sex.’ He pointed at his crotch. ‘Doesn’t work… Broken… No money for Viagra.’

Here was a rare case of a documentary that worked on two levels. As well as revealing a hidden side of Japan, it was also a portrait of a friendship. Naoki and McAllister plainly liked one another and as the filming progressed, so their friendship grew. For years, Naoki had refused to meet Yoshie’s family – partly out of embarrassment: he was the same age as Yoshie’s father. When McAllister accompanied Yoshie to see her family, her father asked him just one question during the entire visit: the price of Viagra in London.

Eventually, Naoki relented and agreed to meet Yoshie’s parents. Trying to break the ice, McAllister presented the men with a gift – a packet of Viagra each. This was a wonderful moment, both very funny and extremely touching. The two men’s faces lit up with delight. ‘His dick doesn’t work either!’ said Naoki. ‘Just like mine.’ By the end of a film that shone with great humanity, things hadn’t improved that dramatically for Naoki and Yoshie – yet the darkness was a little less thick than before. As Naoki said to McAllister, ‘You broke my shadow.’

© Sam Wollaston / The Guardian / March 31, 2009

There’s no unrealistic sex in Japan: A Story of Love and Hate (BBC4). No sex at all in fact, even though Naoki and his girlfriend Yoshie live together in the town of Yamagata, north of Tokyo. The one messy, windowless room they share isn’t exactly conducive to it, and Yoshie’s too tired from her three jobs. They haven’t even spoken for weeks, let alone had sex. Anyway Naoki, who’s 57, can’t any more. “Doesn’t work,” he says, pointing down there. “Broken.” There’s no money for Viagra.

This is a side of Japan you rarely see. Dead poor, for a start, and miserable. A place of stupid rules and intimidation at work (the kind of intimidation that makes your spirit rot, says Naoki), of battling just to stay afloat, of depression and high suicide numbers. Even Sean McAllister, the English filmmaker, is depressed, after struggling for two years in a country he doesn’t understand and which won’t accept him.

Except for the lovely Naoki, a rare maverick, the nail in the Japanese proverb that stands out and should be banged in, but that has somehow escaped the hammer. Once an entrepreneur with a BMW, now a postal worker with nothing, he’s a brilliant character – honest and philosophical, with a lovely, resigned laugh. And this is a brilliant, original film. Man, is it depressing, though.

There is some light, some hope that Naoki and Yoshie won’t be ground down and end up killing themselves, or each other. Naoki agrees to visit Yoshie’s parents for the very first time. Her father, who’s the same age as Naoki, disapproves of him, but he is welcoming, to Sean and his camera as well. The house has windows, there’s beer, talk and laughter. There may even be love later: Sean has brought a packet of Viagra. It’s for Yoshie’s dad, who also suffers from Naoki’s down-there problem, but maybe he’ll share. And then they all go out to a bar, to sing. Hope through karaoke, as so often is the way.

© Andrew Billen / The Times / March 31, 2009

BBC Four’s Japanese season is proving that there are right and wrong ways to scrutinise a thus supposedly inscrutable nation. Two weeks ago Marcel Theroux showed us the wrong way, bouncing off in wide-eyed search of the spiritual concept of Wabi Sabi and coming back with the news that it was all very Japanese and unknowable.

And last night Sean McAllister showed us the right way in Japan: A Story of Love and Hate. After, he said, two years trying and failing to prise open Japan’s “sliding door”, he gave up on Tokyo and moved to a small town 300 miles north. There he came across an eccentric called Naoki Sato. There is, we were told, a local saying that “the nail that stands out most must be hammered down”. Naoki Sato, a part-time post office worker with a Beatles haircut, was that outstanding nail, and how he had been hammered! A former Maoist revolutionary, he had enthusiastically taken up capitalism in his thirties and owned two companies, a bar and a BMW. In 1992, however, the economy crashed and Naoki became one of Japan’s “new” or, as he put it, “usual” poor. Now 56, he lived in a tiny windowless room, his only break from the housework the seven hours a day that he spent collecting insurance premiums for the post office.

To add to Naoki’s problems, he was three-times divorced, had rowed terminally with his family, and was now living with Yoshie, a much younger woman, whose night job was to talk to lonely businessmen who did not know how to converse. I suppose you could say that Yoshie sold oral sex. But she and Naoki no longer talked themselves. All you could guess from her tabula rasa face was that she despised him (and you would guess wrong).

What was splendid about Naoki was that this instinctive dissident in a congenitally conformist society had an albeit mordant sense of humour. Everywhere he took us, tragedy and comedy jostled for the foreground. In his office, daily workouts were complemented by comical ritual bollockings and communal chanting (“slow driving, slow driving, don’t hit pedestrians”) – but his sleepy-eyed colleague in the pullover was so full of narcotics, Naoki explained, that some days he did not wake up in the morning. Naoki had a friend called Mr Mushroom Man because he obsessively picked wild mushrooms. But Mushroom Man also had his tale. His brother, crushed by a business culture of bullying, was among the 30,000 Japanese who kill themselves each year.

This microcosm of a repressed, over-medicated, economically blasted society was unexpectedly relieved by the film-maker himself, when McAllister cajoled Naoki to visit his girlfriend’s father, something he had been ashamed to do because they were exactly the same age. McAllister, however, had had intimate conversations with both men and saw a chance for them to connect over a shared gift of Viagra. At first this peace offering looked like a shocking breach of etiquette, but the gesture opened things no end. Yoshie’s father turned out to be as much a believer in openness as his daughter’s impotent boyfriend. Suddenly Naoki had a family again. The film produced a true and unexpected insight. Instead of going to Japan to look for answers, the West might credit itself with having worked out, in the past few decades, some of its own.

© Paul Whitelaw / The Scotsman / March 31, 2009

WESTERN documentaries about Japan frequently concentrate on the wackier aspects of the country’s culture in lieu of actual depth and are often superficial and patronising. So hallelujah for British director Sean McAllister’s refreshingly perceptive film, Japan: A Story of Love and Hate, which picked apart the clichés to reveal the truth behind the regimented façade of Japanese city life.

After living in Japan for two years, McAllister was getting nowhere in his efforts to make a revealing documentary about the country. Depressed and drinking too much (the film began with him jogging, out of breath and sweating profusely, delivering a desperate monologue to camera), he had almost given up – until he met Naoki, 56, a part-time postal worker. This seemingly unremarkable man turned out to be the perfect subject for McAllister’s documentary. Naoki – a lean, toothsome chap, with a wry smile and wheezing laugh – had once owned a thriving private business, but when Japan’s economy crashed in the 1990s, he lost everything, and now was scraping by on the equivalent of about £4,000 a year. Enter the harsh reality of Japan’s “working poor”.

A thin wall away from homelessness, Naoki lived in what was laughably described as a one-room apartment. In reality it was more like a windowless, strip-lit box. Living there alone would be hellish enough, but the box actually belonged to Yoshie, 29, Naoki’s girlfriend.

She worked 15 hours a day in three jobs, the worst being as a hired date for married businessmen. It was sleazy and bleak, and obviously pained her greatly. Returning home from drunken evenings, she would often berate Naoki before falling asleep from a cocktail of booze and sleeping pills. In the morning she wouldn’t remember a thing.

Naoki and Yoshie’s relationship was one of desperate co-dependence, rather than a romantic partnership, as Naoki was unable to perform sexually since the financial crash. We never even saw them kiss.

And yet, rather than wallow in self-pity, Naoki regarded his situation with a kind of hard-won irreverence. Within a society shamed by a shockingly high suicide rate, Naoki refused to be destroyed by his relentlessly unrewarding work-cycle and seemingly hopeless prospects.

It was this, plus the affectionate interplay between McAllister and Naoki, that gave the film its heart. With Naoki finally accepted into Yoshie’s hitherto disapproving family, it even had a happy ending of sorts. This was an exemplary film, featuring perhaps the most eye-opening depiction of modern Japan I’ve ever seen

© Simon Horsford / The Telegraph / March 30, 2009

The film-maker Sean McAllister wanted to discover what made Japan tick, but it took him two years to stumble upon the perfect subject: 56-year-old Naoki. Naoki used to have everything – his own business, a six-bedroom house and a flashy car – but lost it all in the crash of the early Nineties. Divorced three times, he now lives with his girlfriend, 29-year-old Yoshie, who works 15 hours a day to support him. Her three jobs include evening work in a sleazy bar where she is paid to flirt with and flatter rich, married men. Naoki’s earning potential is markedly lower. At his age the only work he can find is a part-time job in a post office. Their relationship is a strange one – “She hates me, I need her,” says Naoki. Both suffer from depression and Naoki admits that they do not have sex. McAllister’s documentary touchingly captures the dark side of the Japanese dream. The second richest country in the world, Japan prides itself on being egalitarian, says McAllister, but Naoki and Yoshie represent the new “working poor”. As with his previous films (such as Working for the Enemy and Hull’s Angel), McAllister discovers maverick characters living lives far away from the norm.

© Hannah Pool / The Guardian G2 / March 30, 2009

This awkward but engaging documentary follows Naoki Sato, a radical communist turned part-time postman. Naoki lives in his girlfriend Yoshie’s tiny flat, earns £3.50 an hour and relies on her for handouts. Yoshie has three jobs, spends her evenings entertaining “clients” in sushi bars, and brings home £11,000 a year. This is the life of Japan’s “working poor”. She takes a “calm down” pill every night; he thinks of suicide. Their troubled relationship makes compelling viewing.

© Ian Johns / The Observer / March 29, 2009

Director Sean McAllister bonds with fiftysomething Naoki, a successful entrepreneur until Japan’s economic decline in the 1990s, who now works part-time for the post office. He’d be homeless without girlfriend Yoshie – herself holding down three jobs fuelled by sleeping pills and anti-depressants – and her tiny, rural-town flat. At the post office it’s “like communism pretending to be capitalism” with its daily communal exercises and talk of targets. For three-time divorcee Naoki. “No one talks in Japan, people get frustrated, families break up and it leads to suicide.” This offers a strikingly frank portrait of Japan’s “working poor” but still manages to end on a positive note.

© Will Hodgkinson / The Guardian / March 28, 2009

Initially planning to make a documentary on Tokyo, Sean McAllister ended up going to the village of Yamagata to meet Naoki, a former bomb-throwing anarchist and successful entrepreneur until the economic crash of 1992 and now a postal worker. This charismatic rebel is used to illustrate the crushing obedience of Japanese culture and the myth of the perfection of the materialistic life. “This is a part of Japan,” says Naoki, among the country’s new poor with his girlfriend Yoshie, who words as an escort to married men. In being a portrait of a couple as well as the impossible pressure of Japanese culture, McAllister’s film is compelling.

© Radio Times / March 28, 2009

Japan is a global beacon of efficiency, innovation and prosperity… isn’t it? This extraordinary documentary moves away from the neon showboating of Tokyo to a small rural town that’s home to Naoki, a charming 56-year-old divorcee whose businesses failed in the crash of 1992. Naoki offers insights that only a true outsider can: he no longer buys into his nation’s culture of stifled emotions and obedient toil but can’t escape it, and now lives with his blank-faced girlfriend in a windowless, two-room flat. Their odd symbiosis adds another layer to the film’s fascinating revelations about Japan’s hidden underclass.

© Rebecca Frankel / FourDocs / November 12, 2008

How to make a film using Sean McAllister’s tried and perfected method:

  1. Head to a hostile environment to report on an important political issue
  2. Brutally collide camera lens with your topic head on
  3. Realise your subject is a victim sprawled open for examination, like a bug in a petri dish, divorced from the context of its being and devoid of individual detail
  4. Become depressed and think you’re losing your way with no human narrative to grasp onto, as you drink and talk your frustrations through at night with a bar fixture
  5. Leave, and almost give up on the facade of making a film, until you understand the one who propped you up with their near-immunity to the surrounding scenario is the one you must return to
  6. Stake down your claim on this surviving social misfit whose eyes dance above a slouching spine, and attach yourself fast for the next 6 months
  7. Question the basics until they laugh and reveal their seams
  8. Spot the potential drama of their destiny, and divine it

Again, Sean McAllister has cast the most charismatic of characters, in another free spirited hero, at odds with his society and expected role. Welcome to Naoki and the class of working poor in Japan.

Japan: A Story of Love and Hate, was difficult to make, as the confessional and controversial jogging journey dialogue at the start lays testimony to. Misunderstood, misdirected and mistreating his own health, Sean saw the unrealistic expectations for social face, warped work ethics and high suicide statistics, yet was locked out of the society and could not access any emotional theme; he was running in circles with no viable entry to the core for years. The break through was Naoki, an ex-bar owner, an ex-home owner, an ex-brand-new-BMW-paid-in-cash-in-full owner, with ex-wives, and no conceivable assets or family of his own any more. Naoki was living in a capitalist Japanese hell, and provided Sean with a golden ticket into the madness demonstrated so aptly and absurdly with the show of communal exercises done at Naoki’s place of work every morning. The insurance collection officers gather on command to raise their arms in an uninspired union of circles. “It was like watching communism parade as capitalism”; a poignant point in Sean’s stylistic commentary.

The limitation of most films about Japan is their tendency to exoticise, as they paint beautiful portraits of individuals and isolation. In contrast, Sean does not merely show social anomie, but manages to slip inside, sit on the marital bed and split open the shadow hiding the man. This is quite a feat, and part of a poetic quote fromnear the end of the film that demonstrates Sean’s special skill at building a rapport, and pulling out the essence in people who willingly hold up their arms in delight to be got, at last. Ignored and scorned by society, but legal never the less, they stamp down their foot and maintain their right to be themselves, yet tragically have no one around who wants to see them truly. Like Samir and Kevin in previous films, Naoki marches to his own tune, and once he recognizes and accepts that Sean can sense his capacity for living emotionally not rationally, he willing hands over his personality and future.

Naoki lives in a pill popping, feeling suppressing society, sharing a partnership and connection only with Yoshie, who is too tired to talk because she’s paid to hear the surface woes of customers rejected by their own wives through convention. Collective customs and rituals over bear individual desires. And here is where a lesser documentary maker would be pulled up and out for intervening and meddling in the development of life playing out. For Sean helps implement change. But not in a manipulative way, and not in an excessive access to unrealistic resources way. He operates like a friend, offering an ear to hear talk of how it is, and press for how it may be.He dissects relationships, to prompt his protagonists to locate the veins, and ensure their survival, if that is wanted and needed. Which is admirable, and, also makes for a proper narrative arc in the film. We get adramatically satisfying ending that extends the scope of the story, which is great and rare for a documentary that also offers subtle access to a closed and complex political context.

© Frame by Frame / November 10, 2008

‘Japan: A Story of Love And Hate (dir. Sean McAllister) is also worth a mention. It’s a film of juxtapositions – English filmmaker in Japan, Japanese worker with anti-establishment leanings, previous and present situations for its lead character Naoki… everything about it seemed to enhance the story of Naoki and a side of Japan not often seen in the Western World.’

© Sheffield International Documentary Festival (SIDF) / 2008

British documentary’s sinner and saint, Sean McAllister, again offers extraordinary access and returns with an absorbing a portrait of inescapable contradictions, of life and the narrow lines love and hate share

Read about Japan: A Story Of Love And Hate