Is there such a thing as toxic conventionality? The hero of Takeshi Furusawa’s manga adaptation ReLife (ReLIFE リライフ) has driven himself into despair in his failure to achieve conventional success in contemporary Japan, fearing that in having fallen from one of the earliest rungs of the ladder he’ll never be able to climb back up and therefore has no real future. Even so, his dissatisfaction is turned entirely inward rather than channelled into a desire to change society for the better, his eventual epiphany amounting to the determination to help others persevere amid constant disappointment rather than encouraging them to reject the mainstream and search for bespoke happiness.
At 27, Arata (Taishi Nakagawa) isn’t sure why his life turned out this way. He thought he’d follow the conventional path, graduate uni, get a steady salaryman job, marry around 25 and settle down into a comfortable middle class life, but now he’s trapped in a perpetual cycle of job seeking and part-time work with his savings running out and final demands pouring in. Invited to a gathering with old friends one of whom is getting married, he shaves and puts on a suit playing the role of the conventional salaryman they all assume him to be too ashamed to let them know he’s struggling. So when he’s accosted in the street by a strangely elfin young man, Yoake (Yudai Chiba), who tries to recruit him into an experimental programme in which they’ll pay his living expenses while he spends a year as a high school senior he finds himself agreeing.
This is no time travel story, however, the magic pills merely turn Arata back into a 17 year old to enrol in a contemporary high school with kids 10 years younger than himself. He can’t literally change his past but is supposed to use the time to grow as a person, rediscovering a sense of possibility that comes with youth and dwindles with age. His initial intention is just to ride it out seeing as he’ll have no immediate worries for food or shelter and has been guaranteed help with the job hunt when the year is up and he returns to being 28, but inevitably finds himself drawn into teenage intrigue helping each of his new friends reach their own epiphanies in gaining the courage to declare their feelings or overcome their shyness in trying to decide the further course of their lives.
Part of his own epiphany lies in his renewed desire to be part of a community, no longer isolated in his personal shame but actively participating while embracing his innate kindness and desire to help others. As we later learn, he quit his company job on uncovering workplace sexism and petty harassment, unable tolerate it that a talented colleague (Mikako Ichikawa) found her career sabotaged by men who didn’t like it that she was good at her job and therefore presented a threat to their success. Arata naively brought the matter to the attention of his boss but his boss sided with the guys and had her transferred out. Given this information, it makes little sense that Akira quit his job in protest but then continued to apply for new ones with other companies presumably assuming they would be different rather than accepting workplace bullying is a systemic issue.
This is the fundamental problem with his experiences in ReLife in that the path he eventually discovers lies in helping other people endure this already corrupt system which isn’t working for anyone, let alone himself. His emphasis on the spirit of never giving up and being there for those in need is noble, but ultimately only enables the system which caused so many to fall into despair in insisting that it is they who need to live up to these culturally defined ideals of conventional success rather than challenging the deeply ingrained social codes which prevent them from pursuing personal happiness. Part high school nostalgia drama complete with a potentially inappropriate romance, ReLIFE is replete with typical genre motifs such as the cultural festival and summer fireworks display along with the continual sense of something coming to an end as Arata finally convinces himself to “treasure the moment” rather than remain trapped between past regret and fear of an uncertain future, but perhaps sends the uncomfortable message that adult life is something you just have bear rather than actively enjoy.
ReLIFE streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.
Original trailer (English subtitles)