“No matter where we go nothing will change” according to a dejected factory worker in Yuuji Nomura’s adaptation of stage play Long Goodbye (さようなら, Sayonara), yet it seems change might be possible no matter where they are if only they had the will to pursue it. Set at a small factory on a small island, the film reflects a sense of small-town ennui but also the concurrent anxiety that even if you managed to escape it life may not be so much better in the city and you’d have lost the illusionary hope that a better life is possible. Still, what each of them learns is that money alone won’t solve their problems but will definitely create a set of new ones.
The crushing dull nature of life at the factory is rammed home in a looping series of events that begin with Miyazaki (Kouji Kawazoe) and Shibata (Yuuji Nomura) singing karaoke at local bar run by mama-san Tomiko (Kyou Mikamoto) where they appear to be the only customers before waking up early and returning for a group radio taiso session of morning callisthenics. Prone to throwing his weight around, Miyazaki doesn’t like it when Shibata invites co-workers Sueda (Naoyo Ichinose) and Chen (Syunkurou Itoh) to join them but is even more irritated by their refusal. A mousy young woman, Sueda has recently lost her parents in an accident and dreams of leaving the island to pursue a fashion career in Tokyo, while Chen came to Japan from China at 10 years old and has a habit both of comically repeating his name whenever someone else says it and of inappropriately talking about sex workers and masturbation at every given opportunity.
The crisis occurs when Sueda and Chen discover that their boss has been fiddling his taxes and has a large amount of cash stored on the premises because he obviously can’t deposit it in a bank. Realising that he couldn’t go to the police if someone robbed him, they decide to steal the money and are eventually forced to rope Miyazaki and Shibata in to help by keeping their boss drinking at the karaoke bar while they carry out the heist.
Of course, nothing quite goes to plan partly because Chen is a bit of a loose cannon but also because none of them are really the heist-planning sort and they have no idea what they’re doing. Sueda double-crosses Miyazaki and Shibata by leaving with all the cash while she and Chen take a taxi to Osaka station to realise when they get there they’ve missed the last train. Meanwhile, Chen has also stolen a watch from their boss’ home which places them all in danger as it gives him an opportunity to go to the police without necessarily revealing his tax evasion operation. The money represents for each of them the possibility of changing their lives or at least of leaving the island and its dearth of opportunities, but as Sueda keeps cautioning Chen you also have to know how to use it to best achieve your dreams.
Shibata is seemingly the only one who’s more or less happy with his life as it is, constantly reminding the others that actually their lives are fine as they are, unable to understand their sense of desperation and resentful of having his life messed up by their unrealised desire for change. He challenges Sueda that the money is an irrelevance because if she really wanted to change her life she could have done it on the island but she counters him with her feelings of insignificance certain that no one really cares about her or would notice if she tried to change herself. No one can be fully satisfied with their life, he warns her, perhaps suggesting he thinks she’s asking for too much and is simply existentially restless which isn’t something she could cure through crime and a sudden flight to the city. After all, she didn’t earn the money herself, she’s just stolen it from someone else which isn’t a particularly good foundation for self-reinvention.
After being accused of plotting the crime, Miyazaki is then forced to face his own feelings of dissatisfaction, which his arrogant belligerence was intended to cover, along with his frustrated romance with Tomoki who like everyone else just wants to run away hoping that Miyazaki will finally pay off his tab when they get the money. His attitude changes to the extent he offers to bow down to Shibata in exchange for assistance, but he similarly asks him if he really wants to change or is going to settle for his small-town existence too afraid to take the risk of gambling on something better. Their boss cautions Shibata that finding the meaning of life might not be a good thing if you end up discovering that all that awaits you is death, but it seems some do begin to find new direction thanks to their failed heist even if it’s not necessarily the direction you’d expect.
Long Goodbye screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)