A series of youngsters contend with disillusionment amidst the failure of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s adaptation of the “I Novel” by Masahiko Katsuse, The End of the Pale Hour (明け方の若者たち, Akegata no Wakamonotachi). United by a chorus of “it wasn’t supposed to be this way”, the choice left to them is to resign themselves to life’s disappointment or to take a gamble on a happier future which though it might not work out might grant them a greater feeling of control over an existence which often seems pointless and unfulfilling.
The unnamed protagonist (Takumi Kitamura) is already feeling a degree of trepidation even at a gathering that has been organised by a brash fellow student who crassly brands it the “winners’ party” to celebrate that they’ve all been able to line up jobs for after graduation in a competitive employment market. He ends up leaving with an equally bored woman (Yuina Kuroshima), a graduate student a little older than him, and drifts into a relationship with her that seems doomed to failure not least in her constant reminders that “everything ends sometime” and “our youth will be over soon, we need to enjoy it now”. The man insists that their youth won’t end just because they’ve entered the working world but in a sense it of course does, his sparkler fizzling out portentously as he’s forced to think of the future.
A recent trend has seen large numbers of graduate recruits quit their company jobs within the first three years for reasons the man and his new workplace friend Naoto (Yuki Inoue) quickly discover. Japanese companies generally hire en masse in the spring and then shuffle employees into various departments after a probationary period sometimes letting the ones who don’t make the grade go entirely. Though he had done well in the preliminary tasks and hoped to be assigned to the prestigious planning department where the real work gets done, the man is assigned to the “General Affairs” section of office dogsbodies marked out from the regular salaryman workers by their uniform jackets which make it clear that their work is considered menial mainly concerned with setting up furniture for meetings, taking care of maintenance tasks such as replacing light bulbs, and dealing with interoffice complaints. He is constantly told off for not stamping his documents properly only for someone to explain to him that he needs to make sure his name appears at the correct angle to symbolise his bowing to the boss on paper in an example of the rigid office culture for which the young have increasingly little patience.
Part of the man’s problem is his passivity. He’s dissatisfied with the system but is at heart conventional and lacks the courage to break with it. The woman is seemingly less so, a free spirit who’s chosen a path she believes to be more creatively fulfilling excited that she might make something that will one day be in someone’s hands. But then as we discover she is more conventional than she first appears, her openness and enthusiasm perhaps partly fantasy to mask the disappointment that she too feels that her life has not turned out as she thought it would. The man remarks that he likes walking around at twilight because it’s the only moment in which he can feel free, a moment of infinite possibility in the liminal space between one day and the next in which today is already over but tomorrow has not started. Later Naoto will say something similar of their youthful days as fresh hires filled with resentment but also determination, railing against the system until the early hours of the morning, describing it as the “magic hour” of their lives though they never knew the light was dimming.
Such dejection may be slightly unwarranted given that none of them are even 30 by time of the film’s conclusion despite the minor greying of their hair. In any case, the man seems to have come to an acceptance of youth’s end, taking the spirit of the twilight with him as he charts a new, if still conventional course, choosing not to jump ship like his friend but tentatively make an application to get out of General Affairs into a better salaryman job. “It’s been a magic time, hasn’t it?” the woman had said of their brief holiday, “like a dream” but one from which she knows, and perhaps he does too, they’ll soon have to awake. Expressing the anxieties of contemporary generation dissatisfied with their overly corporatised lives in a rigid and conservative society, The End of the Pale Hour nevertheless ends with a sense of the dawn and the promise of new beginnings if tinged with the glow of youthful nostalgia.
The End of the Pale Hour streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.
Original trailer (English subtitles)