Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

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)

Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Takeshi Kushida, 2020)

(C)PYRAMID FILM

“We can only love ourselves through others’ eyes” according to an increasingly obsessed young woman desperately trying to “fix” her image of herself through retouching her photo. An inverted take on Woman of the Dunes, Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Shashin no Onna) sees the world of a bug-obsessed photographer with a talent for “improving” on reality disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious dancer who falls from a tree in the forest into his previously ordered existence.  

Kai (Hideki Nagai), a middle-aged man dressed in an old fashioned white suit, operates a small photo studio taking official photos for things like funerals and omiai arranged marriages. As we later find out from his only regular human contact, the funeral director from across the road (Toshiaki Inomata), Kai’s mother died in childbirth and his father opened this shop to support his son. Kai has taken over but has an intense fear of women and lives alone save for his pet praying mantis with whom he regularly eats his preferred dinner of microwave pizza. 

It’s on a regular bug hunting trip that Kai is struck by the beautiful figure of Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) tumbling out of a nearby tree and causing herself manageable if painful injuries including a nasty gash along her collarbone. Not wanting to go to a hospital, Kyoko gets Kai to take her to a pharmacy and patches herself up, later accompanying him home where he takes some photos of her to post on her Instagram, retouching them to get rid of the traces of wounds. Despite Kai’s silence, she manages to convince him to have dinner with her in a nearby restaurant and later to allow her to stay the night, after which she becomes a more permanent fixture in his life. 

A former dancer now Instagram star, Kyoko originally thinks nothing of getting Kai to clean up her photos to rid them of unsightliness, but is mildly disturbed to watch him do it. In a reverse Dorian Gray effect, Kai must scar the image to repair it, scrubbing away traces of unwanted “reality” in an act which seems to contradict the true nature of photography. “A good lie can make people happy” according to the funeral director who regularly uses Kai’s services to create suitably solemn photos of the suddenly deceased, but Kyoko isn’t so sure. Ever since she asked Kai to soften her reality, her followers have begun to desert her and she’s losing her lucrative sponsorship deals. The apologetic lady from the agency points out that she’s diverging from the “image” her fans expect from her and if she wants to keep them she’ll have to be the Kyoko they want her to be. 

Kyoko doesn’t quite like that, she’d like to be more authentic. Hisako (Toki Koinuma), meanwhile, an unexpected regular to the studio, is of the opposite opinion. In her view, retouching the photo allows her to be more herself, reflect her true essence through manipulating her image. Asking if she hasn’t got things the wrong way round, Kyoko wonders if the men she’s sending them to will be confused or disappointed that the photo and the reality don’t match but Hisako counters her that a man falling in love with her idealised self would only bring her closer to it. The self reflected in the eyes of others is the true self and only through others’ eyes can you find self love, according to Hisakao. Ironically, Kyoko has been looking for something similar through her Instagram success, but begins to resent the extent to which it is changing her, encouraging her to hide the parts of herself others might find ugly in order to gain acceptance. 

Deciding not to retouch the photos, however, has the opposite effect. Her fans love her again, bowled over by her authenticity, but at the same time perhaps she’s engaging in a strange kind of self-exploitation. Her wounds will, after all heal. Could she be tempted into a life of continued self-harm just for likes? Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, as if she doesn’t quite exist online or off, caught between the “real” and the “ideal”.

Kai, meanwhile, remains silent but also captivated by the conflicted Kyoko. His life has been one of isolation, afraid of female touch and contented only among his insects. Yet like Kyoko he’s learning that scars can be beautiful because wounds are a sign of life. Waking up to connection and desire, he learns a different lesson from the lifecycle of the praying mantis realising that the male’s greatest pleasure lies in surrendering its body so the female can continue in life and creation. He no longer fears being devoured, but honours the true connection of mutual exchange. Inverting the conclusions of Woman of the Dunes, Kai finds himself liberated not by a sense of simplicity in life but by its complication, accepting all the richness it has to offer in joy and pain, engaging in his own strange mating dance as a man with a camera capturing his subject in all of her essential beauty. 


Woman of the Photographs was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)