Life is tough. In between college and all the partying with friends, there’s barely enough time in the day to get some rest. Though, if you’re smart, you’ll split the difference and sleep through class. Genius. But sometimes life has other plans, sometimes it plays out far beyond your control and decides to give you one hell of a wakeup call.
Reality. It kinda sucks sometimes. One day you’re an overconfident, arrogant college student coasting through life and the next you’re locked out of your own apartment. At least that’s the case for Osamu Tokieda. It started like any other day, lazy, reluctant and full of all the enthusiasm expected of a college attendee, not student, “attendee”. But, as is the sad truth sometimes, Osamu’s reliance on others changed his life for the worse. A lack of tuition payments naturally led to an expulsion, which led to a confused and considerably irked Osamu discovering that cash flow is crucial. Sounds obvious enough, but when a parent hands out money like it’s going out of fashion, there children rarely learn the importance of saving. Thus, when said parent takes off with a Filipino Bar Hostess without a word, reality comes crashing down hard. Very, very hard. Over the course of a few weeks Osamu goes from college student to homeless, exploring two very different worlds. Thus, time is taken to provide an overview of Net Cafe Refugees, showcasing the ever present wealth gap within Japan. Though this theme is somewhat overshadowed by Osamu’s more unique experience, the film continues to relay the harshness of the world and the abuse of the desperate through what is dubbed the Poverty Industry.
From the get go, this film presents an inescapable factor of life in an oddly sterile manner. I speak of opinion, of judgement, the innate ability of all humans to judge a book by its cover and react accordingly. Namely, this involves a plethora of characters looking down on Osamu. Worse than this, they do it in a condescendingly polite manner that is completely devoid of compassion. From the teacher who plainly informed him of his expulsion, to the lease officer who calmly asked him to leave immediately, Osamu’s less than ideal situation mars his image. In fact, when you think about it, Osamu’s “friends” are never seen after their brief introduction. This fact returns with a vengeance later in the film when he note Junya, a man he met after his fall from society, as his first friend. Which is sweet, and kinda sad. This theme continues throughout the film, wherein the higher ups of the world continue to abuse Osamu, and those like him, in one way or another. Even the police at one point enact this method of treatment, profiling Osamu on the street, leading to a minor situation. Though, in all honesty, what kind of arcade gives away a knife as a prize? That seems very negligent to me. In no way the point of the movie, or relevant at all, but still.
That being said, the arcade does play a rather important role early in the film. Though not expressly stated, said location serves as one of Osamu’s final connections to his old life. Though hard on his luck, he continues to play games and gamble his money. Whether you consider this insanely stupid or summarily depressing is all relative. Though still possessing his “everything will be fine” attitude, there are some very deep cracks in his world view, forcing him to hold on to any sense of normalcy he can. Even at the cost of his ever dwindling cash supply. It is also this attitude that ultimately leads him to meeting Rui and making the best/worst/only option available to him. Failing to understand that not all cute girls are inherently nice, Osamu winds up broke, in debt and grovelling at a Host Club. For one reason or another, the shady owner takes pity on Osamu and gives him a job. Thus begins an even harder struggle to survive.
Sure Osamu spent a time scraping by, but at least he was free. It just goes to show you that life can always get worse, which is an overarching theme of the film. Uplifting I know. Even when the story begins to show signs of hope, when love begins to blossom, it is immediately meted by the reality of the world: money. As Akane, another unfortunate “friend” of Rui, continues to visit Osamu at the host club, she undergoes a distinct change in personality. Her hesitation fades away and reveals a somewhat skewed form of confidence. Though she claims to value her relationship with Osamu, it is an inherently unbalanced connection. Though subtle, Osamu never takes the initiative with Akane. Instead she leads him through the motions of an actual relationship, to the point that she even asks him to tell her that he loves her. While this fact alone is rather complex and sad, it becomes even moreso when you realise that this is one of the high points of the film.
As the film eventually presses past its in media res opening sequence (wherein Osamu is seen laying near dead under a bridge) we see Osamu at his lowest point. That being said, this is also the point where the film begins to start anew which, given the reiteration of the film’s first sequence, is by no means a mere coincidence. The slow pace of Osamu’s recovery, as well as the safe environment presented by his fellow homeless compatriots, allows us to take a breather and mull over the events thus far. Thus, once again, we see how ultimately harsh life can be. As hard as the closing moments of the film try to instil us with a sense of hope, it is impossible to escape the crushing negativity that permeates the world. Lives are shattered, friends are lost to fate and mistakes were made that cannot be undone. It’s honestly tragic. What may be even more upsetting, is the fact that it took all of this to turn Osamu into a decent human being. Though he by no means deserved what happened to him throughout the film, there is a minute and twisted form of justice in what happens. For one who coasts through life, fully aware of their own lack of effort to actually face consequences, it’s a lesson that someone needed to teach him. Then it goes way too far and makes you feel bad for ever being kind of happy about what happened.
Just in case you couldn’t tell that this film is raw in its execution, music is used very sparsely throughout. This lack of non-diegetic sound forces each and every moment upon you, with no escape through music. This is especially effective during Osamu and Akane’s more intimate moments, removing any kind of film style romance from their relationship. The lack of music also served as an analogy of the characters themselves. Just as they continue to barely scrape by, the soundtrack only appears when absolutely necessary. Only the bare minimum was even an option, anything more was folly.
At its core, Tokyo Refugees is not a feel good movie. It is not a tale of redemption or a triumph of chance. It is a story of loss. A life of desperation. As harsh film that drives home the concept that life in itself is an innate victory, though one severely meted by consequence. Though grim, each and every character is unable to escape their actions and their lives are broken accordingly. Whether it is fair or not is irrelevant, it’s what happened. There’s no escaping that. So enjoy the positives where you can, because they are few and far between. Prepare for a bittersweet affair that will lower your hopes and expectations to the point that a 100 yen coin is a victory. Ultimately bringing the film back to the crux of society: Money.
Tokyo Refugees screened as part of the Japanese Film Festival, for more information visit the official site