When it comes to passive heroes, perhaps none could be more than Ryutaro, the protagonist (and director of the same name) of Sweating the Small Stuff. Ryutaro, 27 years of age, lives alone in a messy apartment piled high with empty beer cans and books. Once an aspiring literary author, he now holds a dead-end job as a car mechanic in a ramshackle garage. One day he receives a phone call from his childhood friend Yusuke, who informs him that his mother – who served as Ryutaro’s surrogate mother – is dying from Hepatitis C.
Sweating the Small Stuff is Japanese director Ryutaro Ninomiya’s second but most personal feature, having been inspired by the true events of his mother passing away when he was 6 years old. A favourite at last year’s Locarno International Film Festival, Sweating the Small Stuff presents to the audience the uneventful day-in-the-life routine of an ordinary working-class man, exactly as it unfolds. Ryutaro goes through the motions without any purpose, maintaining a stony façade that masks any form of feeling or expression. He also hardly speaks. Yet beyond this surface of placidity runs a deep undercurrent of simmering emotion, which reveals in both quietly uncomfortable and affecting ways over the course of the film.
We observe Ryutaro’s relationships with his family and friends, starting from his sudden visit to Yusuke’s dying mother who raised Ryutaro after his own mother passed away. Ryutaro is distraught about her condition, yet he is unable to express whatever is buried in his heart. In the next few days, the effect of this encounter manifests in startling displays of anger and irritability towards the people around him.
He lashes out at a co-worker and a high school friend while drinking, pushing them to beat him up, though he doesn’t attempt to fight back at all. Later on, he picks up a perky waitress at a bar, makes her don a schoolgirl uniform during sex and out of nowhere, ruthlessly insults her for being “dumb” when she attempts to make idle conversation. His provocations are so needlessly cruel in this scene that it is almost difficult to watch.
But there is another side to Ryutaro, as seen from his halting moments of compassion towards Yusuke’s mother. Their conversations reveal a stifled, tender side to the taciturn man, as he compliments her on her tasteless seafood curry and they reminisce about a past trip to Hiroshima together.
The original title of the film, “Shiyo-massetsu”, is a Japanese expression that refers to trivial matters, conceived from the idea that the leaves on the outermost branches of a tree are the most insignificant. Located far away from the sturdy trunk, these leaves can be easily blown away into the wind and forgotten. It is a reminder of how fleeting life can be, and with this Ninomiya has constructed an uncompromising character study of an individual struggling to accept the impending loss of a loved one. Sweating the Small Stuff is a dissection in flawed humanity: Ryutaro is unlikeable but not irredeemable, even though redemption is not the focus of the film. His inability to do anything except watch the gradual decline of his surrogate mother parallels his own nihilistic existence: despite feeling unfulfilled, he hardly strives to improve his circumstances. This passivity throughout makes a confrontation with his alcoholic father at the film’s denouement even more emotionally bittersweet.
The screenplay of Sweating the Small Stuff is minimal, yet pent-up pain, grief and regret hides within every nook and cranny of Ryutaro’s daily listless occurrences. With Ninomiya exhibiting great restraint in style and performance, Sweating the Small Stuff is a well-acted, somber work of realism.
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