Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage.
After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him.
Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.
As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him.
Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness.
Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)