Camera Japan 2012 Review: JAPANESE SALARYMAN NEO
(I'm too sexy for this beer...)
This year, the Dutch traveling film festival called Camera Japan had "food" as its main theme. Earlier this month the festival started in Rotterdam and there was Japanese pub food served, there was a sake-tasting event, workshops on how to prepare traditional Japanese foodstuffs yourself, you name it.
And of course the theme also was reflected in the selection of movies that were shown. Older food-based classics like Tampopo were screened, but also many of the recent films revolved around food.
Take Japanese Salaryman NEO, an office comedy about beer (SEXY beer no less) which had its first screening outside of Japan at this festival.
Sadly, my short review would be that seeing it did not make me feel drunk or sexy. For a longer review, read on...
Freshly graduated from college, Shinjo starts working as a lowly salaryman in the third-rate beer brewery NEO BEER, trying to fit into a boring sales department which is rife with insanity, laziness and apathy.
But then the company's owner orders a new product to be designed, a new beer which will make NEO the top local brand. By accident Shinjo mentions the word "sexy" within earshot of his boss, and to his surprise the idea for "Sexy Beer" is given the corporate green light.
Suddenly promoted to project leader, Shinjo now faces the challenge of actually developing this product. At the same time he needs to keep the idea out of the hands of devious competitors and career-hungry colleagues...
In Japan there is a strong trend to create films based on existing successful television series, and this one is no exception. Director Yoshida Teruyuki created Japanese Salaryman NEO as a television rom-com (similar to The Office) and this film is the direct result of six successful seasons in a row.
History has taught us that all over the world, people working in quiet desperation through each boring office day can be a hotbed for stellar dry humor. And the proverbial Japanese Salaryman is the ideal "officer" to poke fun at: somewhat despicable, eager to please his hated boss, willing to sacrifice all of his free time and personal dignity to do so, and not above betraying his fellow salarymen. All this to mask insignificance and ineptitude of course.
Unfortunately I am not familiar with the series so I cannot say what was added or lost in the adaptation process, but when seen by itself the film version is not as entertaining as I had hoped.
For starters Japanese Salaryman NEO lacks an engaging lead. There is no reason whatsoever why we should root for Shinjo (played by singer Koike Teppei) to succeed. He is just as self-centered and annoying as his adversaries, so ... well, so long for caring what happens to him. Far more interesting is his borderline insane boss, played by a Namase Katsuhisa who successfully flip-flops between benevolent sage advisor and passive-aggressive sabotaging force of nature.
As for the humor, there are some nuggets of brilliance hidden in there but you need to work through an awful lot of bland slapstick to see them. Things are fine so long as the story is about the daily life of a Japanese Salaryman, the commentary automatically becoming wry almost all by itself. Just seeing the salarymen (and salarywomen) commute, getting drunk, obsess over baseball and coping with life is pretty easy on the eye, with the film being attractively shot showing a pleasant insider's view of living in a Japanese city. But as soon as the film veers into outlandish territory, that focus is gone, the narrative turning into yet another uninteresting feel-good adventure where the underdog wins an impossible battle through outrageous coincidence. One particularly offending bit concerns a Japanese Salaryman haplessly getting lost in the Amazon rain forest and meeting a tribe of Indians entirely made up of African men and Asian women.
Also a disappointment is how the whole shenanigans surrounding the "Sexy Beer" are handled. Bar one test-run of the product where you see the cast watching the result from afar with binoculars, there isn't any sexyness in the film whatsoever. I'm not going to damn this film for not being a "Pink" one, but if your whole story revolves around making your product sexy, can we please get some jokes or at least MENTIONS about that? Yoshida plays it safe to the point that the adverts for NEO's regular beer look sexier than the ones they finally have for their Sexy Beer.
In the end, Japanese Salaryman NEO just tells its audience that if you work hard enough in your boring job good things will come to you eventually. Combined with the rather prudish delivery of the supposedly naughty subject matter, this renders the film very toothless indeed.
As a satire Japanese Salaryman NEO is too shallow and sentimental to allow for any real bite, and its comedy is a hit-or-miss affair with too many misses, sometimes even offensively so. Bland unsympathetic characters seal the deal.
It is not a total loss and its look at contemporary Japanese city life is at times quite pretty, but unfortunately it is only occasionally funny. Maybe I should have drunk more Sexy Beer...