As portraits of stagnation go, Japanese indie is no stranger though few have found a protagonist as passive as the hero of Ryutaro Ninomiya’s Sweating the Small Stuff (枝葉のこと, Edaha no Koto). Played by the director himself and sharing his name, Ryutaro is a man who barely speaks and has long since given up the illusion that anything that might be said could be of real consequence. Like most of the men in his run down town he has no dreams or ambitions, barely tolerates those who might regard him as a friend, and finds his only refuge in the pages of a book. A chance phone call produces a brief change in his routine but perhaps not enough to shake him from his committed course of listlessness.
At 27, Ryutaro lives alone in a modest, messy apartment filled with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and piles of books. He has a dead end job at a moribund garage and spends his breaks avoiding his co-workers whom he seems to find annoying. Receiving a phone call from a childhood friend, Ryutaro informs his drunken boss that he needs to leave early before going home to eat noodles, read, and wait to be picked up. His friend, Yusuke, takes him to see his mother, Ryuko, who has been ill with hepatitis C for some years during which time Ryutaro has avoided seeing her despite having been close to her following the death of his own mother when he was just a child.
Ryutaro is a sullen sort of man, almost vibrating with an internalised rage which is only calmed at home with his books. Conversations with his friend Yusuke and later with Ryuko reveal that Ryutaro once had literary aspirations himself, even placing well in competitions, but has more or less given up writing. Yusuke also wanted to be an artist but has abandoned his dreams for a regular salaryman life, as has Yusuke’s brother Satoshi who used to bleach his hair and play in a band. Ryutaro’s boss seems to be among the few who has yet to definitively give up, planning to leave the garage to take over an interiors company owned by a friend of his mother’s who has no heirs to inherit it. Ryutaro’s boss has mentioned similar schemes before and they’ve always fallen through, but he thinks this time will be different. Ryutaro, in contrast, seems to have abandoned any idea of forward motion, refusing to pursue his literary goals, a more stable career, or relationships with friends and lovers in favour of whiling the time away inconsequentially.
Having lost his mother at a young age and then watched his step-mother battle a serious illness which she seems to have recovered from, Ryutaro perhaps has reasons to be wary of forming deep attachments. Only once does his stony facade crack, during a private conversation with Ryuko in which he tells her that sometimes he cheers himself up by remembering that there must be people in a much worse place than he is. Yet Ryutaro is not an unkind man, much of the little he does say is offered quietly in kindness such as his defence of Ryuko’s sometimes absent minded husband, but what he can’t stand is babble and insincerity. Pushed into an unwanted, vacuous conversation with a potential girlfriend he quips that he likes his cheap hairdressers because they get it done without talking before becoming overwhelmed and cruelly laying into the chatty woman with a lengthy rant about the utter pointlessness of her one-sided loquacity. Failing to realise the depth to which he’s hurt her, Ryutaro goes back to the bar where she works to try and see her again only to be rebuffed.
A similar event occurs in another bar when his boss makes a joke about his seeming blankness. Twice Ryutaro gets himself into fights and twice he refuses to defend himself, remaining passive as blows rain down on him. Trying to shut everything out, Ryutaro drinks heavily, declines invitations, and stays at home alone but Ryuko’s illness has forced him to re-emerge, to a degree at least, into the world. Caught in a state of permanent anxiety, Ryutaro finds himself paying repeated visits to Ryuko before finally attempting to talk with his equally detached father who appears to suffer from many of the same problems as Ryutaro himself.
Inspired by true events, Sweating the Small Stuff is both a picture and mild rebuke of aimless youth and of a generation which has collectively decided that everything is meaningless and devoid of purpose. In an odd way, Ryutaro, in his inertia, may be the last man standing, still resentfully clinging on to an idea of real meaning which is defined by its own absence. Ryutaro’s tragedy is that he wants more out of life than there perhaps is to be found and remains frustrated among all those content to waste their time in idle pursuits or surrender themselves to a life of respectable drudgery and ordinary happiness but there are perhaps brief flickers of connection to found even within his ever more disconnected world.
Currently available to stream via Festival Scope as part of their Locarno Film Festival selection.
Original trailer (dialogue free, no subtitles for captions)