A young woman finds herself dealing with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness after giving up on the corporate life in Yuho Ishibashi’s zeitgeisty indie drama When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty (朝がくるとむなしくなる, Asa ga Kuru to Munashiku Naru). Set against the backdrop of a society in which death from overwork is not uncommon and there have been countless reports of young people taking their own lives because of workplace exploitation, the film seems to ask if there isn’t another choice and if one can really be forgiven for rejecting the conventional path in an intensely conformist society.
Nozomi (Erika Karata) quit her job at an ad agency six months previously and is currently working part-time in a convenience store not far from where she lives. So ashamed is she of her failure to live up to the demands of corporate life that she can’t bring herself to tell her parents that she no longer works in an office. Her co-workers at the store seem to know, but when they ask questions she tells them that she quit because of too much overtime which is ironic as her boss is forever asking her to work an additional late shift because of poor staffing levels and she always meekly agrees though never seems all too happy about it despite the extra money.
Then again, she doesn’t seem too happy about anything. In a repeated motif, her mother sends her fresh vegetables from back home but she never has the energy to cook for herself and is usually seen eating bento from the store or slurping cup ramen. The fact her life is out of kilter is brought home to her when one side of the curtain rail in her room suddenly collapses in a bid for freedom from its imprisonment on the wall. Barely speaking and aloof from her colleagues, she seems to carry a deep-seated sense of shame that she “failed” to settle in to company life, later telling an old friend she’s unexpectedly reconnected with that she couldn’t cope with the intense overtime that often meant she’d miss the last train and have to overnight in a manga cafe or fork out for a taxi. Her boss always yelled at her, but she felt like everyone else seemed to be managing so the fault must be with her. She regards her decision to leave as a defeat and not a victory even as she recounts feelings of despair and hopelessness crossing the bridge every day to work with only a sense of emptiness in the hollowness of the salaryman dream.
But then the film takes it title from a reflection something her younger colleague said about earnestly feeling that it was wonderful just to get up every day and come to work. Ayano doesn’t mean it as some kind of cultish devotion to the combini life or a toxic commitment to an unreasonable worth ethic, but more that she manages to find joy in the seemingly mundane even as she jokes about her nerdy college boyfriend who wears glasses, and sheepishly reveals that she’s been saving money with the intention of studying abroad. Nozomi’s only in her mid-20s, but perhaps it is a little different for these contemporary college kids who have bigger dreams and don’t feel the need to throw themselves into the corporate straightjacket just so they can feel like legitimate “members of society”. Their relative youth and sense of possibility may fuel Nozomi’s sense of failure, that she’s back doing a college kid’s part-time job at 24 and surrounded by students as if accidentally arrested in adolescence, but perhaps also shows her that there are other options and making a different choice doesn’t necessarily equate to failure.
More than anything, it’s an accidentally encounter with a former middle school classmate (Haruka Imo) that finally allows her to make peace with herself and feel like a human being again, someone worthy of love and respect and with new hope for the future. Evoking a sense of disillusionment with the salaryman dream and the emptiness of corporate success that is devoid of human connection, Ishibashi shoots with a laidback ease that on one level reflects the heroine’s malaise but soon gives way to a comforting breeziness as Nozomi discovers a new home for herself in the wholesome pleasures of friendship and mutual acceptance as a bulwark against the vagaries of a capitalistic society.
When Morning Comes, I Feel Empty screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.