Release Date: N/A
Duration: 77 mins.
Director: Hiroshi Gokan
Writer: Hiroshi Gokan (Script),
Starring: Hirofumi Suzuki, Tomomi Fukikoshi, Seiichi Kohinata, Manaka Kinoshita, Sun Chi,
Mild spoilers in this review
Don’t be fooled by the cute tone, Gotō-san is both dark and refreshingly substantive in its politics which it masks with off-beat characters and meet-cutes in a less-than-ordinary setting. To wit, director Hiroshi Gokan provides a deconstruction of our current capitalist climate wherein, due to factors such as economic liberalisation, cuts to welfare systems, casualisation of work, and certain so-called “efficiencies” such as My Number Cards added for control of identification, society can be quite inhospitable for those who fall off the employment treadmill. Indeed, a person can “disappear” and life can turn into a nightmare as the lead character, the titular Gotō-san finds out.
As travellers and the generally cash-strapped know, 24-hour internet cafes can be cheap and convenient places to stay. The best of them provide showers, a laundry service, a manga library, spacy-enough private booths with computers and the anonymity to live undisturbed for the price of a few thousand yen a day. This is where our titular character Gotō-san works as an assistant and also where he lives.
The name of the place is Sunflower and it is located in the Kamata district of Tokyo, so not terribly far from the centre of the city. Gotō-san (Hirofumi Suzuki) looks to have a cool set-up considering that rent is relatively cheap compared to many apartments, there is zero commute, work is fairly undemanding, and, apart from the occasional difficult customer, the people he meets are mostly as mellow as him. Indeed, his boss (Seiichi Kohinata) and co-worker Toko (Manaka Kinoshita) are both cute and easy-going. One can understand why Gotō-san has registered the café as his official address with city authorities. Heck, there is even a cute girl who also stays in the place for similar reasons. Her name is Riko (Tomomi Fukikoshi) and she pays her rent via sex work, which is how Gotō-san meets her and begins a shy courtship which has those gloriously romantic all-night dates and early morning walks that one can indulge in when there are few commitments. That the two don’t realise they live in the same place adds a new spin to the phrase “passing like ships in the night” and forms some tension in the film as we expect a big reveal to threaten a budding love but there are bigger clouds gathering on the horizon as, while Gotō-san quietly floats along on the currents of life, the world outside is changing…
The café provides a safe cocoon for the characters, but sights of gentrification and construction are constant when Gotō-san ventures outside suggesting the crunching, uncaring, all-consuming forward movement of capitalism. The recurring visual motifs of water, a toy boat, and a maritime license, when combined with visuals of construction show the flow of life and how easily things and people get replaced. Amidst these sights are signs of an economic and social apocalypse such as union members protesting corporate exploitation of labour and rising rates of poverty, overworked day-labourers staying at Sunflower keeling over or high on drugs, and homeless people. Even Gotō-san, so cool and laidback, is revealed to be on shaky financial ground since he can barely afford to pay for a couple of dates with Riko.
A sense of impending doom is felt from these dire warning signs and a change in shooting style where the lighting becomes darker, the locations harsher, and the camerawork in the café starts to have a whiff of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining especially as Gotō-san gets caught up in a psycho-sexual fever dream. Indeed, the café – which is a liminal space subject to economic stability – becomes a metaphor for Gotō-san’s position in society. The anticipated disaster occurs when a virus pandemic hits (surely a reference to Covid-19 even if it isn’t specifically named) and forces the café into tough times that jeopardises Gotō-san’s entire existence.
Gotō-san’s resulting fall is terrifying to watch especially as it rings true thanks to all of the details. Anyone who has lived as a freeter will probably feel the same desperation that lead actor Hirofumi Suzuki exudes in his frantic performance as his money and identification problems trap him in a weird hinterland of non-existence with not enough cash to dig himself out. Seeing him wander around the empty streets of Shibuya (in scenes reminiscent of 28 Days Later) during the lockdown really drives home the unpredictable vicissitudes of life lived in a capitalist system. by the end, the cute tone had dropped and there was a feeling of despair that will hit hard considering many in the audience will have experienced or know someone who has suffered due to Covid-19-related job loss.
The way that the economic catastrophe snuck up was brilliantly done. I felt like the film was playing on our assumptions, disarming us with the comedy and the initial positioning of our protag as a hero who is in control and then exposing him as dangerously unprepared for the real world and with no social safety net to catch him. I definitely gasped at the end and felt a tone of desolation. I also appreciated that writer/director Hiroshi Gokan contrasted Gotō-san with Riko by playing on our prejudices about sex work, showing her to be the stronger character due to her self-determination while also making the statement that physical labour, whether warehouse work or sex work, chews people up and spits them out.
This was one of the films supported by the Housen Cultural Foundation, a group that provides funding for filmmakers in graduate schools. Gotō-san thusly played at the Supported Program at the Osaka Asian Film Festival, a free-to-attend event. Perhaps that this was made from someone caught between the precarious world’s of academia and filmmaking made its observations on the economic precariousness of non-regular work. Regardless, Hiroshi Gokan has made a film that captures the economic uncertainty of our age. He clothed it in the perfect off-beat situations to unleash an unflinching look at labour exploitation and economic hardship.